Warning response on a university campus: Anticipating message confirmation behavior among undergraduate students


  • Gordon A. Gow, PhD
  • Tara K. McGee, PhD
  • Sharon Romanowski, MA




emergency notification systems, university, warning response, students


An exploratory study was conducted at the University of Alberta to examine how undergraduate students might respond to an emergency alert on campus. Findings from the study were derived from an innovative methodology that used text messaging to prompt in situ observations on campus and to inform subsequent focus group discussions about students’ warning response decision making. Additional observations were also made based on a sample of messages posted on the social media platform Twitter following an actual campus alert issued in April 2010. Findings suggest that informal communication channels play a key role in shaping response decision making among students outside of classroom settings. In classroom and laboratory settings, however, faculty and teaching assistants may play a critical role in supporting confirmation of messages and influencing students’ response decisions. Recommendations for emergency planners are discussed, including the use of social media in support of official warnings and the development of “just-in-time” electronic resources for campus faculty and teaching staff.

Author Biographies

Gordon A. Gow, PhD

Associate Professor, Communications and Technology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Tara K. McGee, PhD

Associate Professor, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Sharon Romanowski, MA

Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.


Florida State: University Campus Emergency Notification Systems Report: State Working Group on Domestic Preparedness Ad Hoc Committee on University and College Campus Emergency Notification Systems, July 6, 2007.

Latimer D: Text messaging as emergency communication superstar? Nt so gr8. EDUCAUSE Rev. 2008; 43(3): 84-85.

Traynor P: Characterizing the limitations of third-party EAS over cellular text messaging services. Available at http://www.3gamericas.org//registration/register.cfm?content_id=118&goto=http://3gamericas.org/PDFs/Characterizing_the_Limitations_of_3rd_Party_EAS-Traynor_Sept08.pdf&newwin=0. Accessed September, 2008.

Sorensen J, Sorensen B: Community processes: Warning and evacuation. In Rodriguez H, Quarantelli EL, Dynes R (eds.): Handbook of Disaster Research. New York, NY: Springer, 2007: 183- 199.

Sherman-Morris K: Tornado warning dissemination and response at a university campus. Nat Hazards. 2010; 52(3): 623-638.

National Research Council: Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2006.

Drabek TE: The Human Side of Disaster. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2010.

Drabek TE: Understanding disaster warning responses. Soc Sci J. 1999; 36(3): 515-523.

Mileti D: Factors related to flood warning response. Available at http://www.engr.colostate.edu/~jsalas/us-italy/papers/46mileti.pdf. Accessed January 30, 2009.

Mileti D, Sorensen J: Communication of emergency public warnings. Available at http://www.emc.ornl.gov/EMCWeb/EMC/PDF/CommunicationFinal.pdf. Accessed February 1, 2011.

Drabek TE: Disaster warning and evacuation responses by private business employees. Disasters. 2001; 25(1): 76-94.

Hamback R, Mairiaux P, Francois G, et al.:Workers’ perception of chemical risks: A focus group study. Risk Anal. 2011; 31(2): 335-342.

Peek L, Fothergill A: Using focus groups: Lessons from studying daycare centers, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. Qual Res. 2009; 9(1): 31-59.

Gas leak prompts U of A evacuation. Edmonton J. April 14, 2010.

Starbird K, Palen L: Pass it on? Retweeting in mass emergency. Presented at the Proceedings of the 7th International ISCRAM Conference, Seattle, USA, May 2-5, 2010. Available at http://www.iscram.org/ISCRAM2010/Papers/119-Starbird_etal.pdf. Accessed January 5, 2011.

Sutton J: Twittering Tennessee: Distributed networks and collaboration following a technological disaster. Presented at the Proceedings of the 7th International ISCRAM Conference, Seattle, USA, May 2-5, 2010. Available at http://www.iscram.org/ISCRAM2010/Papers/113-Sutton.pdf. Accessed January 5, 2011.

National Research Council: Public responses to alerts and warnings on mobile devices: Summary of a workshop on current knowledge and research gaps. Available at http://nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13076. Accessed January 18, 2011.