The University of Wisconsin-Platteville gets the message out to 100 percent of its students via text message if an emergency happens on its campus.

But less than half of the students at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University who are signed up to get emergency alerts — and not all are — would receive the alert via text.

These percentages reflect the inconsistent and patchwork emergency notification systems that U.S. universities and colleges use. In addition, universities vary on how they keep track of who and how many receive these alerts.

That is the case at Iowa’s three public universities, an IowaWatch check showed. ISU, the UI and University of Northern Iowa reach students differently, even though the universities report a relatively high rate overall when it comes to sending emergency notifications to students.

The UI, where an alert was sent this past weekend about a downtown Iowa City stabbing, automatically signs up students to any phone number or email that the students give the university as contact information, while ISU automatically signs up its students to get voice and email alerts. ISU students have to select the option of signing up for text alerts, while UI students may opt in or out of any method for receiving notifications.

Records both universities keep show them reaching 94 percent of their students with some kind of emergency notification system.

This HawkAlert was sent on Sunday, April 28.
This HawkAlert was sent on Sunday, April 28. Credit: University of Iowa Facebook page

David Visin, associate director of public safety at the UI, said the university’s Hawk Alert last weekend played a pivotal role in solving that case. A UI student was arrested later in the week in connection with the case after other students responding to a description of the suspect via the campus’ Hawk Alert system called UI police.

“As far as effectiveness,” Visin said, “this latest case, it really worked out well.”

UNI has no automatic sign-up but students may subscribe to receive alerts by cell phone, landline phone, e-mail, text messages or any combination of those methods. Yet, the UNI Department of Public Safety reports that, overall, its UNIAlerts system reaches 96 percent of the campus.

Automatically signing up a student does not guarantee that universities can reach them in an emergency. The UI and ISU use contact information listed on university servers for this, and that information often has the students’ parents phone number back home instead of the number used on campus.

Because of this, the UI’s information technology department is trying to increase the number of students who receive text alerts. One way it plans to make that happen is by encouraging incoming students during freshman orientation to opt-in for text alerts, Chris Pruess, UI manager of directory and authentication services, said.

Pruess refers to text messaging as “one more touch point” for getting emergency notifications out. “It is one of our evolving spaces,” she said. “At some point we’ll be able to roll those in automatically as well.”

Only 27 percent of the UI’s students receiving emergency notices get text alerts, with another 20 percent receiving voice and text alerts, the university’s records show. At ISU, 49 percent of the students receiving emergency notices get text alerts, data show.

That is worth noting because experts say text messages are the most effective method to reach college students during an emergency.

“The best way to respond (to an emergency) is to have the most instantaneous message delivery on a college campus, and that by far is text messaging,” said Michael Hanley, an associate professor and the director of Ball State University’s Institute for Mobile Media Research. He has conducted research since 2005 on college students’ use of cell phones.

According to Hanley’s research, 81 percent of students use text messaging as their primary form of communication, while only 9 percent use email as their main mode of communication.

“Students use e-mail for classwork, not for personal communication,” he said.

  Credit: IowaWatch chart

A review of university procedures at about two-dozen universities by Midwest student reporters, including from IowaWatch, revealed that several universities are like ISU, automatically sending out emergency notifications to school email addresses and allowing students to opt-in for text messages.

Many schools are similar to UNI as well, in that they do not require students to register for and receive text messages.

“I’d rather be informed in that way than be left in the dark,” UI sophomore Morgan Bovee said. However, Bovee said things get confusing when text alerts are sent from different sources, and other students IowaWatch interviewed said follow-up messages are not always sent to note that the threat has passed.

According to a Pew Research Center study on cell phone and text message use, young adults – ages 18-24 – are the most active users of text messages. The study found that 95 percent of this age group own a cell phone and 97 percent of cell owners use text messages.

A national law enforcement official also recommends, like the researcher Hanley, a system that requires opting-out.

“Generally, any system that automatically puts everyone on a campus in a database is better, and then you have to opt-out,” said Anne Glavin, the president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. Glavin also is chief of police at California State University at Northridge.

Although mandatory text alerts are ideal, they may not always work, Glavin cautioned. In some cases, they may be slow and take longer than an email to get to a student.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign uses an opt-in system in which students must voluntarily sign up to receive text message notifications of emergencies. Those emergencies could range from a bad weather warning to a shooter in a university building.

At Virginia Tech University, where a shooter killed 32 students and injured 17 before shooting himself, officials say they require students to go into the system and opt-in or out before they can register for classes each semester.

This project was produced in collaboration with the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium. Amy Harwath reports and writes for CU-Citizen Access. Sarah Hadley reports and writes for IowaWatch. Additional reporting by Rory Linnane of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (
This IowaWatch story appeared in the Quad-City Times, The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), The Courier (Waterloo-Cedar Falls, IA) and Iowa City Press-Citizen, and was the main source for a story by the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune.

For more:
Emergency text alerts not reaching most people on University of Wisconsin campuses, from
Opt-in text alert system leaves many at University of Illinois out, from CU-Citizen Access

Related, from IowaWatch:
Majority of UI Students Feel Safe on Campus, Support Stricter Gun Laws

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