UI getting more advanced alert system

URBANA — The University of Illinois is replacing its 2-year-old Illini-Alert notification system with a more advanced system that police say will provide instant updates about campus threats on multiple platforms.

The UI signed a two-year contract this week with Rave Mobile Safety of Massachusetts, which provides services to more than 300 universities across the country.

The emergency system will be tested over the next few months and should be in place sometime in the fall, barring unforeseen complications, UI officials said.

The new system has an "auto posting" feature that allows police, with one push of a button, to give students, employees and other subscribers instant updates about emergencies via text message, email, social media and Web pop-up alerts, said UI Police Lt. Todd Short.

It also will allow users to share information on their whereabouts with UI police and activate a "one-touch panic button" on their cell phones, or text eyewitness information about crimes in real time.

The Illini-Alert system has been troubled by complaints of delays and sporadic timing, with some users getting alerts much faster than others. Campus officials blamed texting delays on cell phone companies that divided mass texts into smaller batches.

And in March, an erroneous message about a shooter in a campus building was sent out during an update of the system, frightening some users, although the message was quickly corrected.

Short said UI officials started looking into a new system early this year, hoping to add security features not available on Illini-Alert.

"Technology is advancing at an extremely rapid pace," he said. "We wanted to see what was out there."

The Rave system was the most proven application, he said, with North Carolina, Wisconsin, Purdue, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Kansas State universities all using the company's products. Rave also has agreements with all the large cell phone providers, he said.

Short said delays are still possible with text messages under the new system because of factors beyond the UI's control — namely, how quicky cellphone providers forward the messages to users. The UI can track exactly how many messages go out per second, but after that it's up to the phone companies, he said.

However, the messages will be integrated with email, Web pop-ups, digital signs on campus and Twitter and Facebook alerts, he said.

"With one push of a button, six or seven notifications will go out immediately," he said, so users should get the news a half-dozen ways.

Over the next few months, the UI will work with Rave to integrate data from the old system and test the new one.

"We're not anticipating any issues whatsoever," Short said.

If something does go wrong, the UI will have a chance to opt out of the contract and solicit other vendors, he said.

The system will cost $62,500 a year, including installation and maintenance, he said. Illini-Alert, a product of My-StateUSA, cost $63,000 to install and $2,500 a year for maintenance. That company did not bid on the new contract.

The two-year contract signed Thursday has an option for three two-year extensions at the same price, potentially taking the agreement through 2019, he said.

About 24,000 people are currently registered to get text message alerts under Illini-Alert — roughly 19,000 students and staff plus about 5,000 additional contacts, usually parents of students, Short said. Altogether, about 100,000 people with UI email accounts get email alerts whether they sign up or not.

As for the new features, Rave "Guardian" will allow any user with a Web-enabled cell phone to activate a "panic button" that will immediately alert police to a problem and open communications between the user and UI police dispatchers.

It also has a timer that acts as a kind of digital escort. A student will be able to set the estimated time needed to walk to a destination — say, from the library to a dorm — and if the time expires and the student hasn't canceled the timer, a police dispatcher will call to ensure he or she is safe.

The feature would give police the user's profile information — a photo, location, address, emergency contacts, vehicle description and more.

"We've never had that kind of capability before," he said. "Those kinds of applications are what students, faculty and staff really want."

The EyeWitness feature will allow anyone who witnesses a crime to text a dispatcher and provide confidential information.

Asked about privacy concerns, Short said the features will be activated only if a user signs up for them, and they are all "security-protected."

"You can 'what if' yourself to death," he said, but the UI wanted to give users the best personal protection available.

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