Thousands of Loyola Marymount University (LMU) students will now be able to receive communications via cellular phone and BlackBerry wireless handheld devices (personal digital assistants) during an emergency or crisis, thanks to a new and innovative mass notification system.

Connect-ED, a communications service that university officials purchased through a company called the NTI Group, Inc., went into effect Friday, April 20th, and is considered an additional mechanism that the school can employ to assist students and parents in times of crisis, says Erin Griffin, vice president of information technology services at LMU.

“This is a new tool that will help us protect our students,” Griffin said.

The service enables school administrators to record, schedule, send, and track personalized voice messages to tens of thousands of students, parents and staff members in minutes.

While several students at LMU on Monday told The Argonaut that they were not familiar with the new system, those who had heard about Connect-ED seemed to approve of the new service.

“I think itís a good idea,” said Geraldine Silva, 18, a business major at the University Center. She learned about Connect-ED through an e-mail that university officials sent to the student body last week. Told that many of her fellow students were not aware of the mass notification system, Silva appeared surprised. “Maybe some of them donít check their e-mails that much,” she said.

Lauren Jameson, 25, a graduate student, found out about Connect-ED while watching television over the weekend. Like Silva, she believes that the service can be beneficial. “Especially after (the Virginia Tech) shooting, you think about things like this a little more,” she said.

In recent weeks, NTI officials say they have seen students and parents express greater interest in providing schools with information that will allow administrators to connect with them in case of an emergency.

“We have seen an influx in students who have updated their contact information, which is the most important component in the service,” Natasha Rabe, chief business officer of NTI, pointed out. “Itís essential that universities have updated information to be able to communicate with their students.”

Connect-ED offers a bundled set of emergency communication, survey and community outreach notification tools designed to help schools at all levels improve awareness, increase involvement and audit communication on a regular basis.

The April 16th shooting at Virginia Tech University, where 32 students and teachers were killed, has generated renewed concerns regarding school safety among parents, students and college administrators. While campus security and the Virginia Tech massacre by student gunman Seung-Hui-Cho is on the radar of LMU authorities, Griffin said that the murders were not the primary reason for the implementation of the system.

“It wasnít a reaction to the [Virginia Tech] tragedy, but itís a tool thatís designed to respond to such events,” she clarified. “[Connect-ED] will allow us to communicate with a large number of people simultaneously very quickly.”

Rabe says that Connect-ED is in place in approximately 75 colleges and universities nationwide.

“Weíve been involved with kindergarten through 12th grade schools since 2001,” Rabe said. “The concept is still relatively new to universities.”

“We can use this system when there is a security threat, an earthquake or any kind of emergency or imminent threat,” said Ray Hilleyar, LMU chief of campus safety. “It can act as a community alert when there is a threat to security.”

“Itís a great tool for helping us reach several thousands of our students and faculty members,” Griffin added.

Another feature of Connect-ED is the ability to connect with all manner of communinations devices, including TTY/TD devices for the hearing-impaired. This capability gives users “the utility to reach the hearing impaired,” Rabe noted.

In addition to possessing the capacity to reach tens of thousands of users in a matter of minutes, Connect-ED is compatible with most student information systems. Besides communicating with landlines and cellular phones through e-mail, text messaging and voice mail, the service can be accessed through personal digital assistants, or PDAs.

NTI officials tout the systemís viability during arguably the worst tragedy in the nationís history two years ago in New Orleans, during Hurricane Katrina.

“When Hurricane Katrina hit, many school districts, including St. Charles Parish School District, used the Connect-ED system to send messages to the phones of thousands of staff, students and parents in just minutes,” said Robin Richards, chairman and chief executive officer of NTI. “Connect-ED technology provided the reliability and the promptness necessary to communicate essential information during critical times.”

Recognizing that the needs of schools in kindergarten through 12th grade educational system vary from those of institutions of higher learning, NTI has developed different Connect-ED systems for various levels of educators, with input from users at all levels of the education.

NTI is a Delaware-based privately held company providing communications systems designed specifically for local, regional, state and federal entities. The company has an office in Sherman Oaks.