Purdue set to test huge emergency text messaging system

Purdue University will next Monday conduct what it calls the first large-scale, real-world test of using text messaging to issue emergency alerts.

The test, which will begin on Monday, Sept. 24, will involve more than 7,200 volunteers who will accept the test messages and respond so that researchers can track the actual time it takes to deliver messages to a mass audience, Purdue said in a release.

There are many variables that can delay the delivery of messages, including cell tower proximity, signal strength and system traffic volume, said Scott Ksander, Purdue's executive director of information technology networks and security in a statement.

"When we need to send an emergency message, time is the most critical factor. We have seen reports of messaging rates as low as 200 to 300 per minute in some environments, while we have some vendors making unbelievable claims of thousands per second," Ksander says. "We need to measure the environment available at Purdue, do a good engineering analysis on the systems, and understand technical and process changes we need to make to ensure that delivery time are at an acceptable level for mass emergency notification."

If the testing is successful, Purdue may add text messaging capabilities to an existing integrated emergency notification system.

Ksander says the results of the study will be shared with other universities and emergency planners after the results are calculated.

The idea of using text messaging to bolster emergency services is not a new one. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is wrapping up work on key components of its next-generation emergency communications system by year-end. The new system will support voice calls, text messages and images sent over the Internet. The IETF working group in charge of the effort is called ECRIT for Emergency Context Resolution with Internet Technologies. ECRIT is developing a way to route emergency calls over the Internet similar to how 911 calls are routed over the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN).

The shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech on April 16 has heightened interest in using text services for emergency messaging. Verizon Business offers a service aimed at government and academic users that uses texting as a key component. A recently announced service from eAgency Systems for example helps parents track their children's cell phone usage and provides real-time alerts if kids receive unwanted or suspicious e-mail, instant messages, text messages or phone calls. Called Radar, the service works on the BlackBerry Pearl and will soon be available for Motorola's Razr cell phones.

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