The Benefits of Safety Apps for College Students with SMS Opt-In/Opt-Out Features

Friday, November 17, 2017

The benefits of safety apps for college students with SMS opt-in/opt-out features are mostly recreational, but some can be vitally important in an emergency.

Safety apps for college students with SMS opt-in/opt-out features are a fairly recent development. They have evolved from the integration of college alert notification apps with personal safety apps that allow students to create a profile about themselves. The profiles are most commonly used for identification purposes and to note any medical conditions or special needs - such as mobility issues.

Typically all students are enrolled in the college alert notification system that warns students when an emergency happens on campus. The alerts are sent via multiple channels of communication, but some college alert notification systems provide the option for students to opt-out of receiving emergency alerts by SMS by texting a keyword (usually “STOP”) to a short code number (i.e. 12345).

The Purpose of Database Groups within a College Alert Notification System

Within a college alert notification system, students and campus personnel are often sorted into database groups depending on their role, location within the campus, or other characteristic. The reason for this is that, if - for example - a fire were to break out in one of the campus´s buildings, only the people within the building and key personnel need to be advised of the emergency.

The key personnel would include campus security, medically trained staff and CERT-qualified personnel - each of whom could have their own sub-group within the college database. By having database sub-groups, system administrators can contact - for example - medically trained staff in a single alert in the event of an accident where only medical assistance is required.

Using the Opt-In/Opt-Out Feature to Join or Leave Database Groups

The process for opting in or opting out of a database group is similar to SMS text marketing. IN SMS text marketing, consumers wanting to take advantage of a promotion text a specific keyword (i.e. “PIZZA”) to a short code number and opt-into the retailer´s text marketing database. When the consumer no longer wants to take advantage of the retailer´s promotions, they text “STOP” to the same short code number.

Students who are medically trained can volunteer to be on call in the event medical assistance is required by texting “MEDIC” to the college´s short code number. Those who are CERT-qualified can text “CERT” to the same number. The college alert notification system adds the volunteers´ details to the relative sub-group, or removes them if the student texts “STOP” when they are leaving the college.

The Recreational Benefits of Safety Apps for College Students

College alert notification systems can support an unlimited number of groups and sub-groups, offering the potential for some to be created for recreational purposes. For example, a sub-group could be created for students wishing to be updated on the fortunes of the college football team. Students could use the SMS opt-in/opt-out feature to join the sub-group before each game begins.

Other recreational benefits of safety apps for college students with opt-in/opt-out features include the opportunity to join or leave sub-groups listing social events, exchange trips and job opportunities. The options are practically limitless and, provided the college´s system administrator agrees to students´ requests, new sub-groups can be create via the management console with the click of a mouse.

As mentioned above, safety apps for college students with SMS opt-in/opt-out features are a fairly recent development; but, as word spreads about their potential, they are likely to become more commonly used to warn students when an emergency happens on campus and to encourage students to engage in more campus activities.

Californian Residents Urged to Opt Into Emergency Notification Systems

Due to issues with the WEA alerting system during the recent Californian fires, residents are being urged to opt into emergency notification systems.

In October 2017, the state of California experienced its most devastating series of wildfires for almost a century. Dozens of people lost their lives, and 90,000 people were evacuated from their homes across an area of 245,000 acres while more than 10,000 firefighters - some flown in from Canada and Australia - battled to contain the flames.

As the fires started, emergency SMS alerts were sent via the Wireless Emergency Alerting system (WEA) to residents of Orange County instructing them of a mandatory evacuation. However, no such alerts were sent to residents of counties in Northern California, where some of the worst wildfires were raging and the most significant devastation occurred.

Why the Alerts Were Not Sent in Northern California

Explaining why residents of Northern California were not alerted to the fires and told to evacuate, Chris Ipsen - a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Emergency Management Department - said many people unaffected by the fires would have received the alert, unnecessarily evacuated their properties, and caused traffic congestion that would have hindered the firefighting effort.

Ipsen commented the current WEA alerting system has issues due to using cell towers to transmit SMS alerts rather than geo-targeting - a way of delivering alerts to specific geographical locations. Although geo-targeting was scheduled to be introduced on November 1st, Ipsen says the WEA alerting system cannot support the number of characters required to embed the geographical code required.

Residents Urged to Opt Into Emergency Notification Systems

The problem with the current WEA alerting system is that emergency alerts are limited to 90 characters. If emergency alerts included the geographical code required for geo-targeting to work, it would leave very few characters to warn residents of the nature of the emergency and what action they should take (i.e. evacuate or seek a safe place of shelter).

There are plans to extend the number of characters available on the WEA alerting system, but these are not due to take effect until May 2019, and some carriers feel the changes may take a further twelve months to implement - during which time many more residents may lose their lives. For this reason, Ipsen is urging Californian residents to opt into emergency notification systems.

The Differences between WEA and Emergency Notification Systems

There are some significant differences between WEA and emergency notification systems. The first is that WEA alerting systems send SMS messages to every cellphone within a cell tower´s range, whereas emergency notification systems send alerts using multiple channels of communication, but only to residents that have opted-in to receive them.

Emergency notification systems are operated by various organizations. A town or city may have its own system, as might a business or college. Typically they are free and simple to opt-into. Residents send a text message with a keyword (i.e. “OPTIN”) to the organization´s short code text number (i.e. 123456). If a resident no longer wants to receive the emergency alerts - possibly because they are moving out of the area - they simply text the word “STOP” to the same short code number.

Advanced emergency notification systems offer residents access to web portals through which they can select how they would like to receive emergency alerts (by SMS text, voice broadcast and/or email) and their preferred choice of language. These systems also request residents enter their ZIP Codes so they are only sent alerts relevant to their geographical location.

Sadly, had the advice to opt into emergency notification systems been given prior to the October 2017 wildfires, many more lives might have been saved.