In the age of e-mail and text messaging, instantly alerting parents and staff members about emergency situations on campus has become increasingly common, and new technologies have allowed districts to choose crisis-alert systems that are tailor-made for their needs.
“Schools are seeing the need more and more,” says Karla Lemmon, the program manager for Honeywell Instant Alert, a Morristown, N.J.-based provider of emergency-notification services for more than 1,800 schools in several states. “Four years ago, these systems were slower to catch on because the technology wasn’t as widespread.”
But picking the right system isn’t easy, experts say. District administrators “need to exercise a great deal of caution and conduct a thorough investigation,” says Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a firm based in Cleveland.
Sometimes, businesses are “trying to fit a round peg in a square hole,” he warns, “and school districts become the victim.”
But having a communication plan in place is essential, Trump says. He points out that because of cellphones, text messaging, and the Internet, “the rumor mill spreads 10 times faster than it normally would, and schools have to get their message out quickly.”
The 37,000-student Horry County school system in Conway, S.C., has used a Web-based system designed by the National Notification Network, based in Glendale, Calif., for two years as its way of informing parents, teachers, and students about emergency situations. The system uses a combination of e-mail and voice messages, and it also allows schools to conduct phone-based polls.
“Traditionally, people have been dependent on commercial news media [for emergency alerts],” says Teal Britton, the public-information officer for the district. “We wanted more direct communication that we could be in charge of, and not worry about how it was being translated as it’s being relayed.”
‘What We Stress’
Database Systems Corp.
Digital Acoustics Corp.’s IP Campus Alert Systems
Federal Signal Corp.’s Campus Alert
Honeywell Instant Alert
Prepared Response Inc.
REACT Systems Inc.
Send Word Now
3n (National Notification Network)
Like many districts, Horry County decided to implement an e-mail- and telephone-based system that would work not only for emergencies, but also for general communication with parents, faculty, and students.
But it’s important, consequently, says Britton, for administrators and teachers to understand when it’s appropriate to use the system.
“It’s tempting because it’s quick and easy … to overuse this system as a communication tool,” she says. “What we stress with our schools is that if we get to the point where it’s overused, [parents] will stop paying attention to it.”
The biggest obstacle the district faced when it began using the system was cleaning up emergency-contact information for the system’s database.
“There were typographical errors and symbols—we had to do a lot of universal tidying-up of student information,” Britton says. “Another challenge you face is the frequency with which people change telephone numbers.”
Different systems update at different frequencies—some upload information every night, while others input new information once a month, so choosing a system that allowed for frequent updates of the database was a major concern.
It’s also important to consider the different ways in which such systems can reach parents, says Craig D. Apperson, the supervisor of the school safety and security program for Washington state.
“If you call three different phone numbers and no one answers at any of those, do you stop there?” he asks. Faced with the potential frustrations of phone calling, more school districts are turning to systems that also provide e-mail and text-message notifications for an extra level of communication, he says.
Districts should also research how many phone calls the system can make in a given time to be sure it can accommodate the number of people who need to be reached, Apperson says.
Location and Cost
Chuck Hibbert, a school safety consultant who is a former coordinator of safety services for the 14,000-student Wayne Township Metropolitan School District in Indianapolis, headed the selection and implementation of a telephone-based crisis-alert system for his district in 2004.
Before choosing a crisis-alert or other notification system for your district, be sure to consider:
1: How much will it cost? Is the charge a flat fee, or based on the amount of time used? Is there a monthly or maintenance fee?
2: What purpose will the system serve? Will it be used only for emergencies, or will it also be a means of general communication parents and staff?
3: Will the system be run in-house or from an outside location?
4: How many calls can it make in a 30-minute period?
5: How many forms of notification—work phone, cellphone, e-mail address—will it hold for each family?
6: What languages does the system offer?
7: Does it have the ability to divide parents up and contact only specific groups?
8: Is the system compatible with the district’s current software?
9: How often can the system upload student information to its database?
10: How does it fit into the district’s overall safety plan?
The location of such a system is a major factor to consider, he says. Although some districts prefer the control that housing the notification system on campus—either at a central district building or in individual schools—allows, a natural disaster may put an in-house system out of commission, Hibbert says. Therefore, it may be safer for the system to be housed by the provider, he says.
Edward Ray, the chief of safety and security for the 73,400-student Denver public schools, says his biggest concern is cost. “A lot of products out there determine cost on a per-student basis,” he says, “which may work if you’re a small district with a lot of money,” but may not be ideal for larger districts.
Prices vary widely, says Hibbert, from about $2 per student to $6. Some crisis-alert systems charge a flat fee for services, while others base the cost on the number of minutes a district uses the system, he says.
The bottom line, Hibbert says, is there is no one-size-fits-all system.
“It just depends on what you want, and what you want to pay for,” he says. “You have to take a look at what your community’s needs are.”
Katie Ash is a reporter-researcher for Education Week and Digital Directions.