In the wake of this week's shootings at Virginia Tech, many difficult and painful questions will be asked about what might have been done to prevent the horrible tragedy. Virginia Governor Timothy M. Kaine has announced the formation of an independent review panel to evaluate the response to the shootings, and colleges and universities around the country have made it clear that they will be taking a close look at their own safety procedures.

Near the top of the list will be questions about whether Virginia Tech students were notified quickly enough about the unfolding events. University administrators sent out the first of four e-mail blasts to students at 9:26 a.m., roughly two hours after the first two students were slain on campus by fellow VT student Seung-Hui Cho. Notification of the shootings at Norris Hall did not go out until more than an hour after the first gunshots were heard. The University also posted emergency information on its Web site and used its dormitory phone system to spread warnings.

But despite the reputation of Blacksburg, Virginia, as "the most wired town in America," Virginia Tech leaders have conceded that e-mails and Web updates are of little use if students aren't online, and the dormitory phone system cannot reach the thousands of students who live off campus.

Time for Text?

Many organizations, including universities and colleges, are taking a close look at new technologies that can be used to send a text message simultaneously to thousands of users. According to CNET, there are over 233 million cell phone users in the U.S., and most college students carry one. Although the amount of information that can be sent is limited -- just 160 characters -- even a brief but timely message might save lives.

Bryan Crum, the director of communications for e2campus, a company that markets text message emergency notification systems, said that "this week's tragedy [at Virginia Tech] has really been a wake-up call for other universities that their notification systems are not sufficient. E-mail is great for a lot of things, but it is not an adequate emergency notification system."

One university customer Relevant Products/Services, Crum said, reported back to the company that as many as 15 percent of its e-mail messages did not go through because student inboxes were too full.

Virginia Tech reportedly considered implementing a text message notification system earlier this year after an accused murderer was chased onto campus. However, no such system was in place on the morning of April 16.

Less Is More

Crum said that e2campus originally charged customers of its notification system on a per-message basis, but found that it created "a moral, financial, and ethical dilemma for universities when deciding whether to send a message."

Now, Crum said, the company charges a flat fee depending on the number of text message recipients, and organizations can use it as often as they like. "It's great for brief, nonemergency messages too," Crum pointed out, "like 'the shuttle is out of service' or 'Seinfeld on campus tonight.' Universities also can create specific message groups -- sports or faculty, for instance -- and give group administrators the ability to post information."

But the real advantage to a text messaging notification system is that it is quick, to-the-point, and Web-independent. "In an emergency," Crum said, "even if all hell is breaking loose, an authorized person can access the text notification system from a BlackBerry, a Treo, or any Web-enabled phone, and get the word out. The average alert is received within 4 to 8 seconds, and up to 18,000 messages can be sent each minute."