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School Alerts Utilize Web

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Quick communication with parents during a weather emergency or a security threat is a vital concern for school districts, but older telephone-dialing systems and even mass e-mails can all fail to connect.

A recent improvement puts into parents’ hands the ability to set—and modify—their communications preferences on a Web site. That tack is used both by an alert service provided by the Honeywell Corp. and a home-grown system in a Mississippi school district.

The 340-student Harding Township schools in Morris County, N.J., subscribes to Honeywell’s Instant Alert, a managed service that relays messages from designated school officials for both emergency and nonemergency purposes.

Mary Jane Canose, the school district’s business manager, said the message goes out much faster than with the district’s old auto-dial system, which “was so slow and cumbersome, and if one person is away, it messes up the whole chain.”

Now, the superintendent or other designated official e-mails a text message to the service, which automatically converts it to a computerized female voice—meant to convey calmness in a crisis—and sends it simultaneously to the phone numbers that parents have indicated. The text message is also blasted to e-mail addresses and pagers. Alerts are color-coded based on their urgency; parents can designate different contact information for different colors.

The district pays $3,000 annually for the service, said Ms. Canose.

On Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, the 2,500-student Lincoln County district has a message system that follows similar principles at practically no cost.

In September, when Hurricane Ivan threatened the Gulf Coast, Patrick Brown, the information-technology director, stayed up a few nights and built an alert system using free “open source” programming tools. The only significant cost was his time, he said.

As with the Honeywell system, users can go to the district’s Web site and type in their phone numbers and the names of their phone or Internet service providers.

The Lincoln County system doesn’t deliver voice messages, but it sends e-mails and text messages to cellphones and pagers as well as e-mail accounts. The messages are also color-coded to show their degree of urgency.

So far, the district has used the system three times: to warn of school closings because of a tornado and hurricanes, Mr. Brown said.

Vol. 24, Issue 20, Page 8

Published in Print: January 26, 2005, as School Alerts Utilize Web

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