Preparing for the Worst
District administrators must be braced for any type of crisis
- By Karla Lemmon
- Oct 01, 2008
From severe weather to acts of violence, schools
across the nation are forced to deal with a variety
of emergencies. As a result, districts and administrators
have become well versed in crisis planning.
One basic element of an emergency plan is communication—
knowing how to get the right information to
the right people at the right time. It sounds simple, but
it’s an increasingly difficult task given today’s on-the-go
lifestyles and the variety of technology people use to
keep in touch. Placing an emergency call to a home
phone is just not as effective as it used to be.
Consequently, administrators are turning to mass
notification technology like Honeywell Instant Alert®
for Schools. Used by more than 1,800 schools across the
nation, Instant Alert quickly delivers vital information to
parents, teachers and staff. The Web-based notification
system broadcasts messages to any communication
device—landlines, cell phones, pagers, e-mail and
PDAs. And it can send 150,000 30-second phone calls in
15 minutes and 6,400 text messages per minute. This
ensures people receive timely, accurate information in
an emergency and helps schools focus resources on
managing the situation, not the phone lines.
“School districts are realizing the need to use modern
technology to get parents the correct information quickly
and accurately,” said Donna Matthews, director of
technology and assessment at Amelia County, Va.,
Public Schools. “With Instant Alert, all parents receive
information from a credible source.”
Old Methods in a New Era
The tools school districts traditionally use to communicate
with parents, including phone trees and printed
fliers, are proving to be inefficient. Phone trees eat up
valuable staff time and district resources, and fliers don’t
always make it home. School administrators are even
running into problems with the most common method of
emergency communication—local media outlets.
“It can be frustrating to get the media to report the
necessary information,” said Jack Fallat, assistant head
of the Annie Wright School in Tacoma, Wash. “Phone
lines are often busy, and traffic jams occur on media
That’s why mass notification technology has started to
gain traction. It’s fast, effective and direct. Kim Owens, an
administrative assistant for the Shelbyville Central School
District in Indiana, said Instant Alert was an instrumental
resource in a string of recent emergencies.
One evening, winter weather conditions caused the
district to announce a delay for the following morning.
The morning of the delay, a fire broke out at a fiberglass
plant near the elementary school.
“When smoke was found in the building, we decided
to close the school,” Owens said. “After we announced
the delayed start, parents weren’t expecting the school to
be closed. So we had to get the message to them quickly,
before they sent their children to the bus stop.”
Across town, as the middle and high school students
were arriving at school, administrators discovered there
was a limited water supply, as well as a boil-water advisory,
due to the fire. The staff blocked off drinking fountains
and made alternative lunch plans to accommodate
the advisory and hold classes as scheduled.
“When we discovered the toilets weren’t flushing, we
decided to inform parents and send the students home,”
Owens said. “Without Instant Alert, we couldn’t have
done what we did.”
A Rumor's Worst Nightmare
Bomb threats are notorious for disrupting a school’s normal
ebb and flow. While almost all threats are false alarms,
district administrators must take each one seriously.
When a note with a bomb threat was found at an
Amelia County school, administrators were able to
reduce anxiety levels immediately.
“As soon as we received the threat, we evacuated students
and, to minimize panic, sent notification messages
to parents and staff,” Matthews said. “When we heard it
was a false alarm, we sent parents an all-clear message
and resumed school.”
John Searles, superintendent of Merrill Community
Schools in Merrill, Mich., used Instant Alert after school
one day with important news that couldn’t wait until morning.
A man who claimed to be a police officer
approached a Merrill student walking home from
school. He asked to search the student’s backpack,
looked at her papers and told her to head home. Once the
girl was home, she informed her parents and they quickly
figured out the man was an impersonator. The school
received a call shortly thereafter.
“We immediately sent a message to parents informing
them of the incident, and we asked that they talk to their
children about strangers and safety,” Searles said. “We were
able to leverage Instant Alert to make sure parents received
accurate information, void of any misinterpretation.”
Providing precise, consistent and timely information
is especially important for parents who may not see their
students on a daily basis—like those with boarding students
at Annie Wright School, a pre-kindergarten
through 12th grade day and resident school.
Fallat said Instant Alert helped prevent rumors and
reduce panic for parents regarding a student who died at
school due to a medical condition. Determined to keep
the focus on the loss, the school used Instant Alert’s
recorded voice feature to communicate directly with parents
about what caused the student’s death and assure
them everyone else was safe.
The Best Outcome
Increasingly active lives and a heightened sensitivity to
safety concerns are changing the way schools need to
interact with parents, guardians and employees. Instant
Alert is a comprehensive service that takes the guesswork
out of school-to-parent communication and streamlines
the process of delivering important information.
“When an emergency does happen, parents want
to know what is going on right away,” said David
Adams, superintendent of Shelbyville Central Schools.
“We’ve found a way to calm the situation by communicating
with parents quickly, which
allows us to focus on resolving