Developing a Critical Mass Communication Plan

“Communication is the absolute number-one focus for a successful response,” says Tony Baldwin, Ph.D., superintendent (as of July 1, 2009) of Buncombe County Schools, in Asheville, NC. “You’ve got to be able to communicate with people.”

More and more, we rely in technology for any — but especially mass — communication. And communication comes in many forms: between schools, between school personnel, between personnel and students, between school administrators/teachers and parents, and between a school/the district and first responders.

Because today’s communication is more complicated than picking up the phone and ordering takeout, here are 11 tips for developing a critical mass communication plan for any situation.

1. Understand that, when it comes to mass notification systems, no one technology is a communication panacea. Sure, television and radio are reliable methods of communication — provided they’re turned on. Similarly, e-mail and text messages work well — provided the computer and cell phone are turned on. And using an all-call telephone system leaves messages on answering machines that won’t be heard until parents get home from work at 6 p.m.

All of these technologies and more need to be examined and brought into play in order for the message to be ubiquitous.

There’s another reason to use multiple forms of communication: They back each other up in the event that one fails. “This has happened time and time again,” says Houston Thomas, public safety business development manager for Vernon Hills, IL-based CDW-G. “Not having back up means you have a message that reaches no one.” CDW-G provides technology solutions for educational institutions as well as government agencies.

2. If you’re going to purchase new technology to improve communication, especially mass communication, include as many stakeholders as possible in the research and decision-making process. This includes parents, teachers, principals, IT specialists, public information officers, business officers, school resource officers, and community law enforcement agencies. “It’s really in your best interest to have as many stakeholders as can be imagined in the initiative,” says Thomas. “The more inclusive you can be of the stakeholders, the greater your chance of success. The process itself can be driven by anyone.”

3. When researching different communication systems, look at the features of each in relation to your situation. A public school district serving 150,000 students may have very different needs from a private school district serving 200 students. “There are a lot of great options out there,” says Michael Dorn, executive director of Macon, GA-based Safe Havens International, Inc., the world’s leading nonprofit campus safety organization. “But are they the right options for your needs?”

4. When researching different communication systems, be sure to check references from school clients. “Technologies that work well for nuclear power plants, banks, or airports may not be so good for school systems,” says Dorn, “so be careful.” He adds that it’s only prudent to ask for a manufacturer’s experience with a district of comparable size to yours.

When it comes right down to it, it’s not uncommon to run into problems with high-tech communication solutions. The question is, if you do purchase a robust system and experience problems, along with issues getting those problems resolved, are you going to be stuck in a terrible situation? “I’d rather spend four hours of research up front checking four references and getting four glowing reviews,” says Dorn, “than spending 100 hours afterward explaining to the school board why the system doesn’t work.”

5. Consider options for communicating with first responders. As part of a grant, Buncombe County Schools received from the U.S. Department of Education, administrators purchased walkie talkies. The equipment is kept in the central office and is tied to all emergency channels, such as the fire department and sheriff’s office. If a crisis develops at any school, and there are 41 in the system, administrators can carry the equipment to facilitate communication between themselves and first responders.

6. Allow funds for an ongoing awareness program.
“We conducted a study,” says Thomas, “that shows that 68 percent of the population is unaware of a district’s/city’s level of sophistication in terms of mass notification. The reason for this disconnect is that most mass notification systems require the message receiver to register to receive messages. And, if they’re not registered, they’re not receiving the messages.”

Therefore, once you invest in the technology, also invest in a sustainable awareness program so parents know to register. Sustainable is the key word, as families continually move into and out of your district or simply change their contact information.

Consider putting the information in registration packets, on calendars, in monthly newsletters, on the Website, and on athletic and fine arts programs. At the beginning and middle of the year, the information could be displayed on changeable signs in front of each school.

7. Train staff to use the technology. “What we see happen a lot is that a district puts in high-quality technology, but fails to adequately train staff to use it,” says Dorn. “Then, an incident occurs, and in the stress of the situation, the technology doesn’t work as well as it is supposed to or doesn’t work at all.”

Portable radios are an excellent example. A teacher supervising students on the playground is equipped with a portable radio, but not trained on how to use it. An incident occurs, resulting in chaos and so much background noise that the person receiving the teacher’s message can’t hear what she’s saying. Had the teacher been properly trained, she would know that, if she pressed the microphone to her throat while talking, her message would be received and appropriate action initiated.

8. Empower staff to use the technology. In 1958, an elementary student started a fire in the basement of a Chicago Catholic school. Word of the fire spread through the school, but rules dictated that the building not be evacuated unless the fire alarm went off and, because the fire alarm was not sounding, teachers kept students at their desks. Unfortunately, 95 people died.

“No one was empowered to pull the fire alarm,” says Dorn. “In light of this situation, you can imagine how much more difficult the stress of an emergency can be with today’s more complex technology that requires more thinking.”

Baldwin has this issue covered with the mass notification program his school system uses to keep its 26,000 students safe. Each principal has the ability to craft his own message and use the notification system to send it. One feature of the system is the ability to bundle messages to specific groups, such as parents in select classrooms or the entire school, and teachers of the same grade or all teachers.

9. Keep the messages as simple as possible. Remember the point of investing in communications technology is to communicate, but long-winded, redundant messages will only stir confusion and frustration. “We have learned that, when responding to an emergency, communication needs to be short, to the point, and consistent,” says Baldwin. “We give parents enough information to make them aware of the situation and how we’ve responded, but the message is always clear and concise.”

10. Communication must be an integral part of emergency planning.
Buncombe County Schools uses flip charts, which are distributed to each new teacher, to identify a number of hazards and how they are to be handled. Communication is part of the protocol of each hazard. For example, in the fire flip chart, the first step is to dial 911. Another step is to call the central office so that a response team can be assembled. And yet another step is to pull the fire alarm.

“It may sound ridiculous that we actually write out these logical steps,” says Baldwin. “But, in an emergency, logic doesn’t always prevail.”

11. Consider implementing FEMA’s Incident Command System. The benefit of using this system for emergency communication is that it is nationally recognized. Your district’s personnel will be trained to communicate in the same language, if you will, as first responders.

In fact, one member of your emergency team will be directly responsible for communication with first responders. In an emergency, that person will meet with first responders to provide details and answer questions. This only makes sense because, once the first responders are on site, they become responsible for the situation. There’s simply no replacement for this human-to-human communication.

Taking time to integrate technology into a critical mass communication plan, and even going so far as to run a drill using the plan, ultimately produces the desired results — a safe environment for students and staff, and peace of mind for parents and administrators.