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State funds emergency text messages

By From the Lowell Sun

By Matt Murphy
Lowell Sun

BOSTON -- Emergency text messages could be landing in students' cell-phone inboxes soon thanks to new money included in this year's state budget.

The emergency-alert systems will give the state's college campuses -- including UMass Lowell and Middlesex Community College -- another tool to communicate with students, faculty and staff in case of emergency.

State lawmakers and Gov. Deval Patrick made the text-messaging system a priority during budget negotiations in the wake of the tragic campus shootings at Virginia Tech this spring.

State lawmakers set aside $300,000 for campus-safety initiatives, including $250,000 to help the state's 29 colleges and universities implement voluntary text-message notification systems.

"It's wonderful that (the state) is looking at this as a high priority. It may become the primary tool, but text messaging is one of many ways we need to work with and condition community members to be aware of their safety," said Larry Siegel, dean of students at UMass Lowell.

UMass Lowell already operates a pilot text-messaging program on campus with about 650 students subscribed.

College campuses frequently rely on message boards, campuswide e-mail, and phone calls to dormitory telephones to communicate important information to students.

New funding to help cover the cost of text messaging, however, will give many campus leaders a quicker, sometimes more effective way to reach students and faculty immediately on their cell phones.

"We're anxious to participate. I think it will give us a sense of security and our students the same. It's great to see the state coming forward with assistance," Middlesex Community College President Carole Cowan said. "Our two campuses are so spread out. You really need to have a way to communicate with students."

Surveys on college campuses throughout Massachusetts after the Virginia Tech massacre found that students preferred text messages to cell-phone voice mail or e-mail.

Board of Higher Education spokeswoman Eileen O'Connor said money will be distributed based on the number of people at each campus, including students, faculty and staff. O'Connor said 26 of the 29 state institutions indicated they intend to participate.

The state funding will absorb the estimated 40 cents to 50 cents per person to run the text-messaging system each year, and the state has given colleges a choice between two vendors -- Verizon and Dialogic.

UMass Lowell currently contracts with another vendor, but is exploring the cost benefits of switching.

"As the parent of a college student, I know how important it is for students and parents to be quickly and accurately apprised of emergency situations on campuses," said state Rep. Kevin Murphy, chair of the House Committee on Higher Education. "Effective communication is critical for both the student's safety, as well as their parents peace of mind."