U tests e-mail alert system

Alex Robinson

Studies in cinema and media culture sophomore Samantha Van Sant was not allowed into her classroom April 18, and she wasn’t sure why. Van Sant wandered the campus trying to figure out what was going on until her friend called, saying she had seen on CNN that there was a bomb threat on campus.

Van Sant wasn’t formally notified by the University via e-mail until after 3 p.m., nearly three hours after a student first found the threat.

The University sent out test emergency e-mails Wednesday to make sure that students will be more quickly informed in an emergency.

The University sent 60,000 test e-mails in 12 minutes, a 90 percent improvement from those sent during the bomb threat, said University Spokesman Dan Wolter.

The test e-mails were so much faster because the load was divided between 10 different servers, said Internet Services Manager Kevin O’Rourke.

“We were able to do 10 smaller deliveries simultaneously instead of one bigger delivery sequentially,” O’Rourke said.

The first emergency e-mail took longer because it was sent through the normal channels, he said.

“We sent one message sequentially and it competed with normal mail that was coming into the ‘U,’ which is pretty high-volume to begin with,” O’Rourke said.

University e-mail

U students received this message:

Students, Faculty, and Staff,

THIS IS A TEST

This test message is being distributed as part of the University’s effort to improve and maintain the emergency notification system.

The University of Minnesota views email communication as an important part of the notification system and is striving to improve its response time. As part of our effort, we plan to distribute similar TEST messages every 3 months to make sure we can communicate effectively with you.

The University plans on sending more test e-mails every three months to make sure that the system continues working smoothly.

But even with the improvements, students should not rely solely on e-mail in emergency situations, because e-mail is typically used to inform students instead of alerting them, Wolter said.

“You’re never going to receive an e-mail that says, ‘Get the heck out of your building, it’s burning,’ ” he said.

The University uses other modes of communication, such as fire alarms and telephones, to alert students in emergency situations, Wolter said.

In addition to speeding up e-mails, the University is also working on some new ideas to help inform students more quickly in an emergency, said Chief Information Officer Steve Cawley.

The University is exploring the option of text messaging students when an emergency happens. However, using text messaging might not work because there are so many students the University would need to contact.

“We might overload Verizon and Sprint (by) sending out 60,000 text messages at once,” Cawley said.

Also, it would require students to provide their cell phone numbers. University officials would have to decide whether students would be forced to give their cell phone numbers or if it would be made optional, Cawley said.

The University is also considering using a text-only homepage during emergencies, he said.

On the day of the bomb threat, a high volume of users tried to visit the University’s homepage, but many were unable to because of the time it took the page to load.

With only text on the homepage, the site would load faster, especially when receiving a high volume of hits.