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TXT-U Feature Story

Here is my final story for News Reporting and Writing--

MINNEAPOLIS--

University of Minnesota senior Xiong Yang was in Blegen Hall when the adjacent building experienced a bomb threat last December. Yang, 21, and a subscriber to the university’s TXT-U system, was concerned about his safety, which is why he wanted text message alerts.

“I was in the building and asked to leave before the text ever arrived,? Yang said.

TXT-U, launched last fall, is a part of the university’s emergency preparedness system to handle campus wide emergency situations. The system sends subscribers text message alerts with information and instructions about emergencies. After six months of operation, and two alerts, student support of the system is not as widespread as hoped.

Students like Yang signed up for the service wanting to receive warnings during emergencies, however, technical problems have increased doubt among students.

“If it worked, I would have confidence in my safety on campus,? sophomore Katie Hanacik said.

Hanacik subscribed to the service even though she heard of students receiving messages several hours after an emergency.

“That’s not how the system works,? she said. “It is great theory, but there are too many complications.?

Some subscribers are not receiving messages at all. According to a Minnesota Daily article, certain cell phone carriers cannot support the messaging, and the problem can only be detected with new subscribers.

“There are certainly some bugs that need to be worked out initially,? Chuck Miner, a lieutenant for the University of Minnesota Police Department, said. “But it could be a problem with the individual carriers and out of the university’s hands.?

Some students have chosen not to sign up.

“I might be naive,? Scott Ray, a design junior, said. “But I guess I would rather be naive than paranoid.?

And some said they simply forgot.

Joel Johnson, a senior, will graduate next week. He said he never got around to signing up, and does not see the point now.

Johnson said he never felt unsafe at the university. “You’re going to have risks, especially after what happened at Virginia Tech,? he said. “But I think they have handled it well here.?

The tragedy at Virginia Tech last year sparked both the TXT-U system and more threats to campus safety.

According to University Police Chief Greg Hestness, college campuses nationwide received an increased number of bomb threats following the shootings.

“They were interesting,? Hestness said. “ Kind of infectious the days after what happened at Virginia Tech.?

The bomb threat at the university, on April 19, 2007, cleared eight buildings on the university’s East Bank three days after the Virginia Tech incident.

Hestness said that the university has had four more bomb threats since then.

“One phone call could disrupt the entire campus,? Hestness said.

“Bomb threats are a big expense to the university,? Terry Cook, director of the department for emergency management, said. Cook started working on TXT-U shortly after the shootings at Virginia Tech.

“A lot of universities looked [at text alert systems] prior to Virginia Tech,? Cook said. “But it was more important after.?

Cook’s program has since gained just under 14,500 subscribers. About 20 percent of the university community of 65,000. It has been in operation since November.

“Virginia Tech has a higher participation rate than we have,? Cook said. “About 40 percent.?

Cook’s department even developed a campus-wide advertising campaign to increase subscriptions.

Students like Elizabeth Jennings, still have never heard of TXT-U.

“Our goal was to hit 50 percent in the first six months,? Cook said. “But I don’t think we will ever get to everyone.?

People misconceive that TXT-U is only used for bomb threats, but Cook said the system has other applications.

“It’s about warning people in harm’s way to know what to do,? Cook said. “For immediate threats to life.

Emergencies from tornadoes to train derailments could provoke a TXT-U message to the university.

Cook said the system sends alerts in only very serious situations, and people will not be bombarded with messages.

“If a student gets a TXT-U message, they know it’s a big deal,? he said.

Still, many students do not use the service. Cook said he thinks it is because people feel safe on campus.

But Xiong Yang said he does not always feel safe. Even though the infant system is not quite perfect yet, Yang still wants to be informed.

“I have heard of people getting robbed during the day,? Yang said. “I signed up for TXT-U because I wanted to know about dangers happening on campus as soon as they happened.?

Click HERE to see more about the recent bomb threats.