Pitt Launching System To Provide Emergency Alerts Via Cellphones, Other Mobile Devices

Issue Date: 
August 22, 2007


Soon, Pitt Police Chief Tim Delaney will be able to alert the University’s more than 42,000 students, faculty, and staff about campus emergencies via their cellphones, Blackberries, or other mobile devices in a matter of minutes, thanks to the newest piece of Pitt’s emergency notification system.

Earlier this month, the University reached an agreement with Verizon Notification Services (VNS) to provide Pitt with support technology to relay emergency notices via mobile devices. The new system complements Pitt’s existing means of emergency communications, including voicemail, Web postings, and fire alarms.

Pitt officials began last fall to explore developing a University emergency-notification system for mobile devices, said Jinx Walton, director of Pitt’s Computing Services and Systems Development (CSSD). This spring’s shootings at Virginia Tech reinforced the administration’s desire to get such a system in place, she said.

“Students, parents, faculty, and staff began calling, asking what types of instant emergency communications systems we had in place,” Walton recalled.

This week, CSSD introduced the online sign-up form on the my.pitt.edu portal. Walton said her department will stress the importance of full participation in the program while spreading the word through campus organization meetings, information tables at events, and University publications.

“The system will only be effective if as many people as possible sign up,” she said.

Members of the University’s Pittsburgh, Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown, and Titusville campuses can designate as many as three mobile devices through which Pitt may contact them via voice mail or text messaging. The system is tied into the University’s central directory, which means that students who have graduated and faculty and staff who have left Pitt will automatically be purged from the system.

The VNS system will not be linked with the campus phone system.

In a campus emergency, Delaney, in consultation with Pitt senior administrators, would activate the system, which can be customized by the nature of a specific emergency—for example, alerting only individuals in certain buildings if an emergency is limited to those buildings.

Walton said Pitt chose Verizon’s system over a number of competitors’ systems because of its track record of reliability in delivering emergency communications, the system’s redundancy and resilience, and its high capacity; also, the system will require very little manpower support from the  University, she said. VNS claims to have the capability to deliver more than 400,000,    30-second voicemail messages and 500,000 text messages per hour. The company also says it delivered more than 230 million messages in 2006 with greater than a 99 percent rate of delivery success.

Details remain to be worked out, but Walton said she hopes that enough people will sign up for the new system to run a test of it later in the academic year.