More districts adopting emergency notification systems
- By Sean Leonard
- Oct 01, 2010
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,
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.”
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
“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
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.