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Keeping the Community in the Know

Notification systems are more sophisticated—and popular—than ever.

Notification systems—which use the Internet to enable school administrators to make and send thousands of automated phone calls, text messages and e-mails in minutes—are expanding in popularity in school districts across the country. As the dire national economic conditions increase voter concern about the best use of tax dollars, notification systems often play a crucial role in district transparency, by enabling administrators to conduct telephone or online opinion polls about budget proposals, for example, and rapidly, regularly and efficiently informing the community about financial issues. The 2009 School Safety Index, a national survey conducted by CDW-G, found that 70 percent of districts were using some form of the technology to disseminate information, up from 45 percent in 2008, while 46 percent of districts without such a system were considering implementing one in the next year. “That is a tremendous increase. Notification systems have become part of the infrastructure of school districts,” says Houston Thomas, lead public safety business manager for CDW-G.

The demand is so strong that notification is becoming a part of other services. School Web site design company eChalk, for example, recently added a text messaging and e-mail notification feature to its capabilities. “A lot of our customers were interested in notification,” says Charlene Noll, vice president of product development. “This feature is becoming an important part of what we do.” And according to a recent market analysis report by research firm Frost & Sullivan, “The education segment is expected to register high growth in the next two years,” due both to the “need for reliable communications in emergencies” and the recent “significant improvements” in mass notification systems.

Not Just for Emergencies

While the number of districts implementing mass notification rapidly increases, the frequency with which such systems are used is also increasing. “Emergency notification” is becoming something of a misnomer, as most of these products are now designed to be used more often, for regular, non-emergency, everyday communications. This trend is due in large part to the convenience and ease of use that comes from Internet-based, entirely hosted online services. “We started as an emergency notification service, but our customers kept telling us they could do so much more communicating with the same technology,” says Jason Bedford, vice president of AlertNow, whose fully hosted system can make up to two million calls per hour.

More affordable than hardware- or software-based systems of the past, systems like AlertNow do not require on-site installation of software, hardware or additional phone lines; nor do they require maintenance. Users simply log in from a Web browser, or call in to record and broadcast a message over the phone. Administrators at the Nassau County (Fla.) School District implemented the SchoolReach notification system after a security incident in 2007 but started using the system for much more than emergencies, including reminders about a variety of events, unexcused absences, low lunch money balances, or late buses. Because of the system, “we’ve increased attendance at certain activities by double or triple,” says Sharyl Wood, the district’s executive director of administrative services.

The Brownsburg (Ind.) Community School Corporation implemented AlertNow as part of its 2008 initiative to eliminate all paper communications with parents concerning various district events. “Those without Internet access can sign up to receive school newsletters and information via an AlertNow call each Sunday evening,” says Donna Petraits, director of communications at Brownsburg Community School Corporation.

Language translation technology has also become more sophisticated than ever; consequently, text-to-text and text-to-speech language translation is fast becoming an important feature. TeleParent, for example, claims translation is one of its strongest capabilities, and it supports dozens of languages. SchoolReach now includes translation, and AlertNow is aggressively adding languages, increasing this year from 11 to 20 languages it translates. “Spanish is the main one, but there are a surprising number of districts that need many more languages to reach all their parents,” says Bedford.

New Platforms

Regardless of the type or urgency of the messages, however, the greater the number of platforms and media that are used, the greater the chance that they will be received. As a result, notification systems continue to broaden their reach beyond voice messages to landline and cell phones to also include text messaging, e-mail, desktop instant messages, school Web sites and blogs, and most recently through social networking applications like Facebook and Twitter.

"We've increased attendance at certain activities by double or triple." -Sharyl Wood, executive director of administrative services, Nassau County (Fla.) School District

“The information needs to be ubiquitous, in as many places as possible across different technologies and media,” says Thomas. None of these platforms is supplanting existing technologies, however. “Schools are still utilizing old technology in an emergency, like radio and television broadcasts,” says Thomas, but notification systems are adding more and more platforms to the total number of technologies they support.

Future Uses

These trends will continue, and the overall future of notification systems is one of continued expansion, to new technologies and an even wider audience. “One area that will grow is interagency communications,” says Thomas, “so that in an emergency, school administrators can quickly send messages not just to parents but to police, fire departments and other agencies, and also send them maps and diagrams of their facilities, for example.”

Regardless of the type of notification system, effective community outreach is crucial, and it’s accomplished by keeping phone numbers, e-mail addresses and other contact information current. “Remember that these systems require parents to register,” Thomas adds, “so a sustainable program of reminders to keep them involved and connected is vital to success.”


Kurt O.E. Dyrli is products editor.