In Communication

More districts adopting emergency notification systems

As society continues to become more mobile, school districts across the United States increasingly are adopting emergency notification systems to keep in touch with parents. Whether notifying the community of a potential pandemic or informing parents of weather-related closings, school districts are finding these systems key to timely, effective communication.

In Michigan, more than 130 school districts are using Honeywell Instant Alert for Schools, a Web-based notification service. The service allows the districts, which include 672 schools and approximately 246,000 students, to broadcast messages to any device -- from landlines and cell phones to e-mail and PDAs. Schools can send hundreds of thousands of phone calls and text messages in minutes, helping reach people no matter where they’re located.

Two Michigan districts in particular have demonstrated how notification systems improve school-to-parent communication and security in almost any setting.

Break from the Norm
Breckenridge Community Schools is a three-school, 900-student district in central Michigan that frequently relies on Instant Alert for routine event reminders, as well as the occasional school delay or closure.

However, when the school received notice of an escapee from a nearby prison, the administration knew the situation would catch parents off guard. Parents needed to be alerted about the situation as soon as possible with detailed information to reduce panic.

“The prison is located about 8 miles away in another school district,” said Jeff Jennette, former superintendent of Breckenridge Community Schools. “The school district went into a lockdown, and the city police were stopping cars and checking them for the escapee. We knew Breckenridge parents worked in the area and would also hear about the situation from other parents. We needed to let parents know their children were safe, before the rumor mill started.”

Breckenridge used Instant Alert to quickly send a message to all parents explaining the situation. By mid-afternoon, the district was still in lockdown and the escapee had not been found. Administrators knew this would present a problem for afternoon dismissal, which was scheduled to occur in less than two hours.

Jennette sent another alert to parents, updating them on the situation and letting them know that buses would run as usual. Bus drivers, however, would need to see a visual cue from homes that it was OK to drop off the student. Jennette also notified parents that they would need to pick up students who typically walked home from school.

“Had we not used Instant Alert, there is no way we could have executed a successful dismissal plan this quickly,” Jennette said. “Even if we would have used traditional communication methods, such as the radio or television, parents would not have known to look for the information, so we wouldn’t have reached nearly as many people.”

According to Jennette, only one student did not have a ride home that afternoon. Every parent received the news, and every child got home safely. The prisoner was caught at 11 p.m., allowing Breckenridge to return to normal activity the next day.

“We have become an efficient, fast-paced society and look to have information right away,” said Sean McNatt, current superintendent of Breckenridge Community Schools. “If schools want to be successful, they must keep up with the outside environment and look for resources that will help them operate efficiently when budgets may be tight.”

High-Profile News
Just down the road from Breckenridge is Saginaw Township Community Schools, which is made up of nine schools and more than 1,000 students, faculty and staff. The district chose to implement Instant Alert to communicate with parents regarding unscheduled school closings and delays.

“Since Instant Alert notifies parents directly, we can wait longer to see if weather conditions improve before making decisions about school closings,” said Jim Mitchell, technology director for the Saginaw Township Community Schools. “We don’t have to factor in time to reach out to the media so they can broadcast information. The volume of messages we can deliver in 10 to 15 minutes is unmatchable, and we know parents receive the information since Instant Alert is integrated with our contact database.”

As its needs have evolved, the district also has started sending messages to parents regarding unexcused absences, conference reminders and extracurricular activities. Due to the system’s flexibility, district administrators can determine which types of contact devices receive specific types of messages. Specifically, the district sends emergency communications to all devices in the database and routine messages to e-mail and home phone numbers only.

On one occasion, the district sent a message to parents that was anything but routine. During the 2008 presidential campaign, First Lady Michelle Obama made an appearance at the district’s high school. Due to event logistics and security needs, the district was overwhelmed by the amount of information it needed to communicate.

“There were a lot of adjustments that happened throughout the day due to security for the event, such as closed parking lots, re-routed traffic and bus routes, and updates about ticketing information,” Mitchell said. “We knew that if we sent the information home with students, many parents would not receive it or that the information would be outdated, as details constantly changed throughout the day.”

Mitchell said the appearance by Michelle Obama was successful and credits notification technology for the effective delivery of event information to parents. Mitchell also attributes the increase in parent attendance at school activities to the success of the system.

“In the past, kids were getting dropped off when there was no school and messages weren’t making it home to parents,” Mitchell said. “With Instant Alert, parents hear firsthand about closures, conferences and school functions.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Security Today.

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