Text messaging to the rescue

Today, the worst mass shooting in history happened at Virginia Tech. Over 30 killed and many wounded. The police and university officials are receiving a good deal of criticism, because the shootings happened in an initial, less mortal phase, followed two hours later by a second, horrible slaughter. It seems "obvious" to us that the campus should have been shut down during that two hours, in order to protect the university community.

The university used email and had people calling dorm RAs on the phones, but there are 26,000 students, plus faculty and staff, at that school, and most of them were on their way to campus during the critical two hours. So I ask the question: how in the world were the university officials supposed to implement a warning to tens of thousands of people, in a few minutes?

I think that we have reached a point in our cell phone technology where they can begin to perform a much larger role in emergencies than they do currently. The cell phone system works by interconnecting a vast network of smaller, local "cells", hence the name. When someone moves from one cell to another, the old cell deletes the SIM code from its database, and the new cell picks it up. As a result, the computers that control each cell always have an up-to-date list of all cell phones, by service provider, that are in range.

Therefore, it seems to me that there is no technical reason why in the case of a mass emergency, such as what happened today at VTU, but also other kinds of terrorism, or natural disasters such as fires, floods, earthquakes, and so on, that emergency messages couldn't be pushed out from local cellphone towers to all phones in range.

In the worst case, it would take only a few minutes for a text message to be sent to every phone in range, and in most cases, it would take only seconds. Text messages are highly superior to voice messages for this purpose, because they do not require anything like the bandwidth or time of a two-way voice connection.

If all of the towers serving the VTU campus had sent out one or more messages after the initial shootings, they could indeed have shut down campus and warned virtually every member of the community, or someone standing nearby who could have spread the word.

Well, that's my thought on this topic.

Greg Shenaut

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