The Campus Emergency Business Boom

Gregory Bender doesn't like to think that he profits from tragedy, but he concedes that when violence occurs on school and college campuses, his business spikes.

"After the Virginia Tech and Amish school shootings, business, unfortunately, took off," he said.

Bender is the chief executive officer of K12 Alerts, a White Plains, N.Y., company that provides electronic emergency notification systems to public and private schools and, most recently, colleges.

After Thursday's fatal shootings at Northern Illinois University, Bender and his competitors are bracing for a fresh round of inquiries from education officials eager to beef up their emergency systems with text messaging, e-mail, automated phone calls and other services.

NIU notified students of the shooting through e-mails, voice-mail alerts and a message on its Web site, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported. It wasn't clear this morning whether the university used an internal system or an outside service.

"After Virginia Tech, almost 10 months later, the interest had slowed down a bit," said Ara Bagdasarian, the chief operating officer of e2Campus, a Leesburg, Va., company that works with college and universities nationwide. "I do think this will definitely elevate the awareness of campus communications once again."

If it does, Bagdasarian will find himself competing with as many as 50 other emergency alert companies. It wasn't always that way.

When e2Campus was established in 2003, Bagdasarian said, competition was virtually nonexistent. But demand wasn't as great either. By 2004, just two colleges had signed for the company's services. By the early spring of 2005, e2Campus had 30 clients.

And then came Virginia Tech: In April 2007, a gunman killed 31 people on the campus of the Blacksburg, Va., university before killing himself.

In the time since the tragedy, Bagdasarian saw his client list grow to nearly 500, most of them colleges. In October, the University of Memphis used e2Campus text messaging to reach students after the murder of a college football player. The University of New Mexico used e2Campus to evacuate students after a chlorine gas leak.

"It was overwhelming, the amount of demand for the service with phone calls and online requests," he said. To handle it all, Bagdasarian increased the size of his staff fivefold, to almost 50 employees. He also expanded the company's infrastructure with servers in New York, California, Florida, Texas and Washington state.

could afford to do it: Between 2006 and 2007, e2Campus's revenues grew by 1,400 percent.

K12's Bender has also seen blockbuster growth. The company, founded in 2002, originally began with a single school district in suburban New York and has since attracted clients from seven other states.

At the company's inception, Bender said, it would take about two months to persuade school districts — which were primarily concerned with reaching the parents of students — to purchase his company's services, which, like e2Campus, include text messaging, e-mail and automated phone calls.

"It was an interesting sell at that point because we were trying to sell a whole concept and change the way schools communicated with parents," he said.

Today, sales can get done in a day.

The marketing that emergency notification firms employ to attract business has not been without controversy.

On April 18, 2007, two days after the Virginia Tech shooting, Missouri-based US Netcom put out a news release with the headline, "Could Emergency Phone Notification Have Prevented Virginia Tech Massacre?"

A blogger for Radar Magazine blasted US Netcom for "becoming the first company to try and make a buck off this massacre" and "spinning gold" from the tragedy.

Calls to US Netcom weren't immediately returned this morning.

The cost of the services provided by K12 and e2Campus are largely dependent on the number of students at a school. Packages from K12 cost an annual fee of $1.50 to $2 per student. E2Campus charges about $2 per student each year for text messaging, phone and e-mail alerts.

Colleges don't have to turn to outside companies for emergency notification services. Purdue University has enabled its universitywide e-mail system to send alert e-mails to 60,000 people in six minutes.

"It really didn't cost us anything," said Purdue spokeswoman Jeanne Norberg. "It required smart people to sit down and think about it and try to figure out away to make it faster."

"We're a major research university. We have the ability to do this," she said. "Perhaps others don't have the ability or don't have the expertise to do it, but we do."

But Purdue has reached out for help for another communications tool — text-messaging. In October, Purdue contracted with 2sms, a company based in Virginia and the United Kingdom, to provide text-messaging services. The university estimated that the service would cost between $15,000 to $20,000 per year.

Norberg said Purdue administrators were thinking about emergency notification systems long before Virginia Tech.

"It's obviously something that the technology made possible," she said, "and if the technology made it possible, we wanted to make it happen."