Prof: Emergency alerts may prevent subsequent calls for aid

Patrick Traynor, assistant professor in Computer Science, recently published research suggesting that text-message systems may be ineffective during emergencies.

Traynor said that cellular networks are not designed to deliver large scale messages, and that they are not a very reliable method of doing so. He stated that cell phone systems make it extremely difficult to target users in a specific location. He also said that there is no way to authenticate the source of messages, making them easy to replicate by others.

“There is a lot of misconception about what cell phones can and cannot do,” Traynor said. Currently, cell phone networks are point-to-point systems, meaning the message has to be delivered independently to each recipient.

“You can compare this to a situation where I give a lecture independently to every one of my students instead of a whole group,” Traynor said.

He stated that this makes the communication of large-scale messages difficult to deliver effectively. The delivery of multiple warning messages may flood the cell phone networks and make it difficult for people to call in an emergency.

According to Traynor, this problem is currently being researched. New mass messaging technology would allow the broadcast of messages to a large number of cell phones, instead of delivering them point-to-point. This type of capability would solve the problems presented by mass notification systems.

“Instead of giving my lectures individually to each student, this would allow me to broadcast my lectures to a number of students, as I do in my classes,” Traynor said.

Also highlighted was the lack of authentication for cell phone messages, making them subject to fraud.

“Any non-technical person, with the right tools will be able to go in and copy emergency messages and send them out to a large audience. If students believe that the systems are prone to abuse, then they won’t trust them anymore,” Traynor said.

He had several suggestion for alternative procedures that universities could perform to secure themselves in case of an emergency and circumvent the challenges posed by cell phone alert systems.

“Universities must be sure to diversify their communication systems for the event of an emergency,” he said. “Campuses must be sure to utilize e-mail, campus TV and other forms of media to communicate with students and faculty. There is nothing a university like Tech can do to fix the problems with existing cell phone technology.”

Andy Altizer, director of Emergency Preparedness, outlined several of the things Tech is doing in the event of an emergency.

“Our system is more than text messages. For example, GTENS uses text, phone message and email. And, we also can use the new audio Siren Warning System, campus cable TV and WREK radio, Skyguard weather alerts and internet messages,” Altizer said.

In addition, Altizer and his department are planning numerous additions to GTENS. Starting in November, the department plans on creating an emergency hotline, which students and faculty could call during a crisis situation to get help.

“We expect everyone to keep an eye on the situation during an emergency, and not totally rely on emergency alerts for information during these fast developing situations. Emergency notification will continue to be a priority at… Tech,” Altizer said. “We have a staff member that has emergency notification as a major job responsibility. We have an emergency notification working group that meets monthly, another emergency preparedness committee that meets monthly and we even meet semi-annually with the Atlantic Coast Conference committee to discuss emergency notification and other relevant topics.”