Prepared for the Worst

From severe weather to acts of violence, schools across the nation are forced to deal with a variety of emergencies each year. One basic element of an emergency plan is communication, knowing how to get the right information to the right people at the right time. It sounds simple, but it’s an increasingly difficult task given today’s on-the-go lifestyles and the variety of technology people use to keep in touch. Placing a call to a home phone is just not as effective as it used to be.

Consequently, administrators are turning to notification technology. Used by schools across the nation, this technology quickly delivers vital information to parents, teachers, and staff. The Web-based notification systems broadcast messages to any communication device — phones, cell phones, pagers, e-mail, and PDAs. And some can send 150,000 30-second phone calls in 15 minutes and 6,400 text messages per minute.

This ensures people receive timely, accurate information in the event of an emergency. It also helps schools focus their resources on managing the situation, not the phone lines.

“School districts are realizing the need to use modern technology to get parents the correct information quickly and accurately,” said Donna Matthews, director of technology and assessment at Amelia County Public Schools in Virginia. “For example, the majority of students now have cell phones and will call home with information they hear during an emergency. Consequently all parents receive information from a credible source."

Old Methods in a New Era
The tools school districts have traditionally used to communicate with parents, including phone trees, and printed fliers, are proving to be more and more inefficient. Phone trees eat up valuable staff time and district resources, for instance, and paper notices don’t always make it home.

School administrators are even running into problems with the most common method of emergency communication — local TV and radio stations.

“It can be frustrating to get the media to report the necessary information,” said Jack Fallat, assistant head of the Annie Wright School in Tacoma, WA. “Phone lines are often busy, and traffic jams occur on media Websites. Even if you’re able to get the message out, parents have to be actively looking for it.”

That’s why mass notification technology has started to gain traction. It’s fast, effective, and direct. According to Kim Owens, administrative assistant for the Shelbyville Central School District in Indiana, this type of technology was an instrumental resource in a string of recent emergencies.

One evening, winter-weather conditions caused the district to announce a delay for the following morning. The morning of the delay, a fire broke out at a fiberglass plant near the elementary school, leaving staff and parents wondering if the airborne chemicals or smoke would be a threat to the students scheduled to arrive soon.

"When smoke was found in the building, we decided to close the school," Owens said. "After we announced the delayed start, parents weren't expecting the school to be closed. So we had to get the message to them quickly, before they sent their children to the bus stop."

Across town, as the middle and high school students were arriving at school, administrators discovered there was a limited water supply, as well as a boil-water advisory, due to the fire. The staff blocked off drinking fountains, and made alternative lunch plans to accommodate the advisory and hold classes as scheduled.

"Initially, we felt by making adjustments in the schools, we could stay up and running," Owens said. "However, when we discovered the toilets weren't flushing, we decided to inform parents and send the students home. Without the communication system, we couldn't have done what we did."

A Rumor's Worst Nightmare
Bomb threats are notorious for disrupting a school's normal ebb and flow. While almost all threats are false alarms, district administrators must take each one seriously.

When a note with a bomb threat was found at an Amelia County school, administrators were able to reduce anxiety levels immediately.

"As soon as we received the threat, we evacuated students and, to minimize panic, sent notification messages to parents and staff," Matthews said. "When we heard it was a false alarm, we sent parents an all-clear message and resumed school."

Families in Amelia County aren't the only people receiving critical information from their local district. John Searles, superintendent of Merrill Community Schools in Merrill, MI, used one of these systems after school one day with important news that couldn't wait until morning.

According to Searles, a man who claimed to be a police officer approached a Merrill student walking home from school. He asked to search the student's backpack, looked at her papers, and told her to head home. Once the girl was home, she informed her parents and they quickly figured out the man was an impersonator. The school received a call shortly thereafter.

"We immediately sent a message to parents informing them of the incident, and we asked that they talk to their children about strangers and safety," Searles said. "We were able to leverage the system to make sure parents received accurate information, void of any misinterpretation."

Providing precise, consistent, and timely information to parents is a top priority for all school districts. And it is especially important for parents who may not see their students on a daily basis — like those with boarding students at Annie Wright School, a pre-kindergarten through 12th grade day and resident school.

Fallat said their system helped prevent rumors and reduce panic for parents regarding a student who died at school due to a medical condition. Determined to keep the focus on the loss, the school used its recorded voice feature to communicate directly with parents about what caused the student's death and assure them everyone else was safe.

"We've learned that a voice message by phone is the best way to communicate news that is sensitive in nature," Fallat said. "It ensures delivery, adds credibility, and makes the news a little easier to grasp. Before we had that system, that wasn't always possible and couldn't be done as quickly or as accurately."

A Plan for the Best Outcome
Increasingly active lives and a heightened sensitivity to safety concerns are changing the way schools need to interact with parents, guardians, and employees. These comprehensive services take the guesswork out of school-to-parent communication and streamlines the process of delivering important information.

Public and private schools across the country are using these systems to efficiently reach parents in a crisis situation. (The services are also used for a variety of routine communications, from field trip reminders to baseball practice updates.) Although school administrators would rather not have to think about emergencies, they know being prepared is key to the best possible outcome.

“When an emergency does happen, parents want to know what is going on right away,” said David Adams, superintendent of Shelbyville Central Schools. "We've found a way to calm the situation by communicating with parents quickly, which allows us to focus on resolving the emergency efficiently."

Karla Lemmon is the program leader for Honeywell Instant Alert Plus and Instant Alert for Schools. She has worked with both mass notification offerings since their inception. Lemmon holds an engineering degree from Valparaiso University in Indiana and an MBA from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN.