SHERIDAN — Early Tuesday morning, members of the Sheridan College community received a text and email about a mountain lion sighting on campus. Campus police could not confirm the sighting, but thousands of people were made aware of the potential hazard through a mass notification system.
The Northern Wyoming Community College District Alert app has been in place since the 2016 spring semester for occurrences like the one that happened Tuesday morning.
A notification about a potential mountain lion is one of many services the app provides. It includes an emergency option that dials campus police; iReport, where the user can communicate — with an option to remain anonymous — to campus police about a potentially harmful situation, with the possibility of also attaching a photo or video; and Safety Escort, where an officer accompanies a student to a dorm or campus building.
If a user hits the emergency button on the app, it triangulates the person’s position using cellular signals and sends the location to campus police.
Sheridan College Police Chief Jason Vela said the location aspect particularly comes in handy when someone is indoors.
“It will show us at least the area you’re in inside that building,” Vela said. “We found a problem with people calling a lot and saying, ‘Hey, I’m in the Whitney building and need help.’ We were having a problem getting people to direct us properly.”
The app is maintained through a company called 911 Cellular. NWCCD technology personnel also update the app weekly through 911 Cellular to ensure it works properly. Vela said 911 Cellular is one of the only companies they found that has GPS capabilities indoors and not just a mass alert system.
Larissa Bonnet, Sheridan College director of campus life and housing, said incoming Sheridan College students are told to download the app during orientation.
“Our students are able to communicate, so we are able to be more proactive versus waiting for [campus police] to come in and find us,” Bonnet said. “[Students] are always on their phones, so this is more user-friendly for them.”
Vela said iReport is the portion of the app utilized most often and that it has been used more frequently this year for circumstances like bullying or harassment.
The emergency call has been used for many different situations.
“It could be anything from, ‘My tire is flat’ to ‘There’s somebody trying to abduct me,’” Vela said.
When an emergency situation occurs, like the reported mountain lion sighting, an administrator issues a timely warning. In that instance, Vela said the alert system sent 2,633 texts in 30 seconds.
Alerts can be separated between the Sheridan and Gillette campuses and between students or the entire campus. Previously, alerts had to be sent to both campuses, even if a situation only occurred on one campus. Vela said the app, mass notification and software updates for the entire college district costs about $5,000 annually.
Apart from the occasional accidental emergency call or technological issue, the process has worked smoothly. The emergency button calls campus police, so if someone accidentally presses it, he or she can tell the officer everything is OK.
The main difference compared to the previous notification system is the dual line of communication: a student can contact the police and the police can also notify the entire campus.
“It’s info coming in and info going out,” Vela said. “Before, all we had was info going out. People couldn’t contact us through the app and let us know of things going on.”
The NWCCD Alert app can’t prevent emergencies from occurring, but it enables everyone on campus to respond more quickly.