The 1999 shootings at Columbine High got administrators thinking about it.
The tragedy of 9/11 made many sign up for it.
And the recent spate of school-related shootings last fall has
confirmed for others that an emergency notification system is not an extra, but a necessity.
An increasing number of school districts are using these systems as an invaluable way to reach parents for emergencies, and to even send routine messages.
"One of the biggest challenges for administrators after an incident is parent communication," says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, an emergency preparedness training organization. "Getting accurate information to parents is critical, and I advise schools that they need something in place to do that."
Within days of setting up Connect-ED, a hosted rapid emergency notification system, last January, Vacaville Public Schools in Vacaville, Calif., had to put it to the test to handle an incident. A student at Will C. Wood High brought a gun to school to show his friends and accidentally fired it while sitting in the bleachers during gym class. The bullet hit a wall of the gym and caused debris to fall, injuring a student.
School and district administrators sprang into action to make sure the incident didn't explode into something bigger.
Superintendent of Schools John Aycock sent a voice-recorded phone message to every parent of the 2,200 students at Wood High within minutes using Connect-ED, which was created by NTI Group, a private company that provides comprehensive communication systems. He explained the situation and let them know that only one student was injured, and it wasn't serious. He also sent a second phone message to parents of students in the district's other schools. The notification system lessened any panic, Aycock says.
"We would have been flooded with parents," he says. "Instead, only 100 parents [or only 5 percent] came to check their children out of school that day." Since then, Aycock has used the system to let parents know about everything from back-to-school events and open houses to when report cards will be given out. "This way we bypass the kids and get the information directly to the parents," Aycock says. "No more paper to worry about."
Finding the Right Fit
There are several types of notification solutions on the market: hosted, where users access the vendor-managed system via a secured Web connection and/or telephone; Web-based, which are systems accessed through the Internet; and in-house systems, which include auto-dialer systems owned, operated and maintained by the school or district (see sidebar for details).
Technological advances and outside companies that provide the communications service have made it easier to contact parents quickly. Now, instead of five hours to make 500 phone calls, it takes less than five minutes to make 5,000 calls with most hosted systems, such as 3N (National Notification Network), of Glendale, Calif., and even some Web-based systems, such as K12 Alerts of New York.
To operate a hosted or Web-based system that places phone calls to parents, school officials record a message from any type of phone and press a code to transfer their message to the notification service. The notification system then forwards that message to everyone on the school's communication list. Some systems also make it possible to contact parents either by phone, PDAs/text-based devices, e-mail, or all of these simultaneously.
Gregory Bender, president and chief executive officer of K12 Alerts, says the benefit of sending text and e-mail notices is that working parents can be contacted even if they're in a work meeting. The Ardsley Union Free School District in New York has been using text-messaging from K12 Alerts, an emergency messaging platform, for three years to contact parents for major and minor emergencies. These messages are more of a convenience to many parents, says Superintendent Richard Maurer. "It also helps us notify parents of situations before their children [hear of a situation], so we can give them accurate information and avoid any rumors," says Maurer.
Ardsley's notification system has also replaced the district's paper newsletters. Instead, they send out a monthly e-newsletter called the "Ardsley Blast." "Parents like it because they can stay on top of what's going on and they get the information much faster," says Maurer. "Plus it saves us an enormous amount of money in printing and mailing costs."
Vacaville and many other school districts had relied on antiquated emergency-communication systems, or auto-dialer systems, that could only dial as many phone numbers simultaneously as the number of phone lines the school or district had installed. They were often slow-in Vacaville's case it would take all weekend to contact all of the 14,000 households of students in the district-and occasionally be prone to error, for example, by incorrectly dialing a number. The systems were also reliant on local power systems. So a regional or local power outage would make the phone-dialing systems temporarily unusable.
More modern systems, hosted by outsourced companies like Honeywell Instant Alert, AlertNow, or K12 Mobile, have servers across the country. So if there were a major power outage-such as the one in August 2003 that left several states on the East Coast in the dark and without electricity-the companies could still operate from their other servers.
Even more modern auto-dialer systems can be slow. For four years the Uintah County School District in Vernal, Utah, used a Web-based, in-house notification system which allowed the district to use its own auto-dialer system. Seven outgoing phone lines made one call per minute, or 420 calls in an hour. It took district officials more than 13 hours to call each home of the district's 5,500 students.
Officials realized how slow the system was when they used it last September to report a mysterious mercury spill. Officials don't know where the mercury came from, but it was discovered outside Vernal Middle School, near the cafeteria. Although it was only about three or four tablespoons, mercury's vapors are so hazardous that administrators immediately cancelled school, evacuated students and sent an emergency message to parents.
The problem, recalls Uintah's safety director John Nielson, was that it took about two hours for all the calls to go through and some students were home before their parents were notified. And if there were a power outage, Uintah would have had no way to contact parents. The mercury incident made Nielson and other administrators at the district agree to upgrade to a Web-based, hosted version using School Messenger to notify parents.
The new system, put in place last October, allows the district to make about 3,600 calls in 60 seconds. All contact information for parents is uploaded from each school's database. To initiate the system, officials log on to a Web site, identify parents they want to contact, call a given number, make their recording, punch in an access code and disconnect. The notification system does the rest. Nielson says that Uintah schools still use the old notification system to contact parents if their children are absent or if they have a low balance on their lunch accounts. So far, aside from a few test runs, there have been no emergencies to test the new system. But there is comfort in knowing that it's ready to go, says Nielson. "Now there are no doubts that we'll be able to reach parents in enough time," he says.
Though purchased for emergencies, many schools and districts say communication systems are essential for keeping in touch with parents about a variety of issues, including reminders for back-to-school night, the start of the school year, and checking if a child is legitimately absent.
Natasha Rabe, chief business officer for the NTI Group, notes that several districts have increased attendance simply by sending out reminders before the first day of school or after a long holiday break. One school contacted parents for back-to-school night and had 80 percent more people attend than they had anticipated. "When you have a voice calling to remind you of an event, it improves school-to-community connections," Rabe says. Connect-ED offers a hosted system and has systems at hundreds of school districts including Houston Independent School District in Texas and Pinellas County Public Schools in Largo, Fla.
The nonemergency uses for emergency notification systems also include keeping teachers and coaches apprised of schedule changes or school closures due to inclement weather. School athletic directors use weather notification systems, such as Accuweather's StormHawk, to keep them informed of lightning strikes, tornadoes, hurricanes, hail, blizzards or other hazardous conditions. At the Kamehameha School in Hawaii, administrators have used the service for last-minute notices to parents when school buses are late due to heavy rainstorms.
The benefit, says Morty Carter, the school's director of security, is that authorized staff members can operate the system from anywhere on the 320-acre campus even though the main unit is housed in the high school. It doesn't require a major trek across the campus just to access the system. "This has made my job a lot easier," says Carter.
At a time when school-to-home communication is vital to increasing parental involvement and gaining community support of schools and districts, notification systems are an essential part of a district's communications arsenal. "Parents like to know what's going on," says Aycock. "This makes it easy for us to reach out to them and for them to feel connected to what's going on, even in an emergency."
Lucille Renwick is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.