Facebook to play role during crises

The group is modeled after one at Purdue University that has about 6,000 members.

by Emma Carew

As part of a campus-wide initiative to improve emergency notification, the University News Service staff created the Facebook group University of Minnesota Emergency Notification and began inviting students to join last week.

“What we look for is a number of means to potentially reach people (during emergencies),” University spokesman Dan Wolter said. “This is one way we’re trying to do that.”

The group joins a system of tone-alert radios, phone trees and campus-wide e-mails as part of the University’s emergency notification protocol.

Following the Virginia Tech shootings in April, college campuses around the country began looking for ways to improve emergency notification, Wolter said.

“Some of the lessons of Virginia Tech were (that) you need multiple mechanisms to have an effective emergency communication system,” University Police Chief Greg Hestness said.

A report commissioned by the governor of Florida revealed four basic elements that a strong campus notification system needs, including text messages, mass e-mails, weather alerts and a public address system.

The University employs two of those methods, e-mail and weather alert notifications, Hestness said.

During the University’s April bomb threat shortly after the Virginia Tech shootings, the University sent a campus-wide e-mail in an attempt to quickly inform students, staff and faculty.

Unfortunately, the e-mail took nearly three hours to reach all of its intended recipients, Wolter said.

The Office of Information Technology has since worked out some kinks in the system, he said, and the University can deliver an e-mail message to about 50,000 people in 10 to 15 minutes.

The Facebook group has about 500 students as members and is modeled after a similar group at Purdue University.

The Purdue group has about 6,000 students in it, Purdue University spokeswoman Jeanne Norberg said. The group was started shortly after the Virginia Tech shootings.

The Purdue officials learned Facebook was a powerful tool when they had a student go missing, she said.

“We used what we learned, and set up this Facebook group,” Norberg said. “Thousands joined immediately.”

Facebook started coming up in conversations among administrators over the past two years, Amelious Whyte, chief of staff in the University’s Office for Student Affairs, said.

“It serves a unique role bringing people together in a tragedy like Virginia Tech,” he said, “or how we’re using it now, as a supplement to how we notify people in terms of an emergency.”

The University will not rely on Facebook as its sole means to communicate with students, Whyte said.

“It puts a burden on the University to make sure that we don’t use it more than it needs to be used,” he said. “People would leave the group if we used it to send messages that are not emergencies.”

Minnesota Student Association President Emma Olson said she supports the University’s foray into the world of Facebook.

“We should use as many avenues as possible to keep students safe,” she said. “I kind of commend the University of using younger methods of communication for issuing announcements.”