Speech Helps Students Return to School Safely

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 Working in New York during 9/11, Michael Sher lost all ability to communicate with his family and coworkers. Access to phone lines, email, Web sites, and mobile providers evaporated, and he had no way of confirming his safety to others. He thought there had to be a better way to keep people in touch during emergencies.

"I started out creating a better way to ensure the probability of a timely delivery of a message," says Sher, cofounder and chief strategic officer of Send Word Now. "We took all of someone’s familiar communications devices, put multiple contact devices and contact points in our service, and someone, anytime, can reach out to hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously."

During a crisis situation, when people might not know which communication ports might be operational, Send Word Now allows users to send out a number of messages to a variety of communications devices. Though prompted by the events of 9/11, college campuses are responsible for the most recent and publicized use of Send Word Now’s technology. In light of the shooting of 33 people at the Virginia Tech campus in April, colleges and universities across the country re-evaluated their emergency protocols and searched for more inventive, effective ways to alert students, faculty, and staff of a crisis. A number of the country’s larger universities, including Boston
University, New York University, University of Central Florida, and University of Delaware, have either purchased or implemented the Send Word Now technology.

The technology, which can transmit messages to email, voicemail, or text message accounts, is also particularly adaptable for college students’ lifestyles and preferred modes of communications.

Stephen Morash, manager of emergency planning and rescue at Boston University, says his school’s choice to purchase Send Word Now was prompted by a need to "understand how students communicate." "You have to deliver the message to where you feel people are going to respond to it," Morash says. "We felt the cell phone and text messaging were the right way to go."

Send Word Now’s program also uses text-to-speech capabilities to transmit information regarding a crisis to a student’s voicemail account. A single message, which is submitted into a main alert system, is then converted into a synthesized voice message, or copied verbatim and sent out to every user’s text message inbox or email account. In some cases, Sher adds, universities could also enact capabilities to the program that allow users who receive the alerts to respond and confirm their safety.

"You can press a button in real time on the phone, or send in an email or a text message that confirms to the message sender that everything’s OK," Sher explains. "Whatever those responses are, they can be tracked into our services and easily reviewed."

Boston University’s previous method of alerting the school’s students and employees of emergency situations, took way too long, Morash explains. "Initially, based on severity, we would call the BU police department," he says. "There would then be a quick conversation between three or four people, our police chief, the vice president, and executive vice president, and they would come up with a quick message to send and what the immediate steps should be." Today, Morash’s staff is able to relay the message to 250,000 people affiliated with the university within minutes.

And though Sher says that Virginia Tech was the catalyst that led to an "overwhelming groundswell" in Send Word Now’s services, he thinks the next likely step in the technology is the inclusion of students’ parents within a university’s Send Word Now system. "The next generation is going to be parental opt-in capabilities," Sher states. "But right now that’s not mandatory because it’s not widespread enough around campuses and universities. You have to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run."

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