In Case of Emergency


Web-based notification systems can send out thousands of messages in mere minutes,alerting parents to everything from school closures to predators in the area.

SecurityIT WAS 3 A.M., Frank Rizzo recalls, when he was awakened in his hotel room one morning last fall by a school superintendent. The director of information technology and CIO for the East Aurora Union Free School District in New York was in California on a business trip when a freak storm that became known as the “October Surprise”hit East Aurora and the surrounding area.

The snow was piling up, the superintendent told him, and he asked Rizzo to activate the district’s emergencycommunications system.

“So I fired up my laptop, logged on to the website, changed the site to indicate that we’re closed, and sent out the alert to all the parents in the district,” Rizzo says.“Then I went back to sleep.”

Using a web-based emergency communications system from School World, Rizzo sent text messages and e-mails to parents, students, and teachers 3,000 miles away to let them know that school would be canceled that morning. He repeated the process before daybreak over the next few days, as downed power lines kept the school system and the entireregion at a standstill.

For more than two years now, School World has been offering its E-News Communication System to districts and schools as part of its modular website management solution. In February, the company introduced Ed-Alert, a stand-alone version of the technology. It’s an opt-in system that allows parents to sign up to receive e-mail and textmessages.

Web-based notification systems such as the School World service are emerging as the technology du jour for informing parents quickly and efficiently about everything from bus schedule delays to lurking child molesters. They allow administrators to send simultaneous and virtually instantaneous messages with a few mouse clicks to landline telephones, cell phones, pagers, e-mail clients,and PDAs.

“These systems provide a way to make sure parents know what’s going on during an emergency,” says Deborah Bricker, project manager for School World. “Instead of hearing rumors and rushing to the school, the parents can get the facts in amessage or messages directly from the school.”

“We’ve never had to use the system for a Columbine-type thing, but we’re ready,” Rizzo says. “If we ever need it, it’s there.”

However ominous that sounds, it’s good to know the capability is in place. Earlier this year, a student at Merrill Middle School in Michigan told her parents that a man flashing what looked like a police badge had approached her and tried to search her backpack. Her parents called the sheriff’s office and the school. When administrators learned of the incident, they alerted other parents in the district via a web-based notification system from Honeywell International.

The same Honeywell system also sprang to action on a late fall day last year, when melting snow seeped into the gas tanks of the buses that serve Tommy’s Road Elementary School in Goldsboro, NC. The buses wouldn’t start, students were going to be late getting home, and parents would soon be calling the school. However, administrators turned to the company’s notification service to inform all the parents at once that the buses were running late and that the situation was under control.

Fast Acting

Honeywell says its notification service can send out 100,000 30-second messages—in all formats—in the space of 15 minutes.

About four years ago, according to the company’s market manager, Tim O’Brien, Honeywell—known as a provider of a range of security systems and products for a number of industries—began looking at the potential of the web as a medium for linking parents and schools during an emergency. That research resulted in the launch of the company’sInstant Alert system in 2004.

“When you rely on old-style phone trees, you’re managing the phones, not the emergency,” O’Brien says. “And in our increasingly mobile society, parents are just plain harder to get to. If you want to connect schools with parents reliably, you can’t limit yourself to one type of communications technology.”

Honeywell maintains the primary database of parental contact numbers on its own servers, and it supports call centers; all the districts need to create a mass notification is access to the internet or a telephone. “The beauty of the Honeywell service is that it not only sends out telephone messages, but e-mails and text messages, depending on what the parents have signed up for,” says Ken Derksen, public information offi-cer for North Carolina’s Wayne County Public Schools.

The Wayne County district, which is composed of 33 schools (including Tommy’s Road) and serves 19,400 students, implemented Instant Alert in 2005. It was the first district in thestate to do so, but it won’t be the last, Derksen says.

“Here in North Carolina we have severe weather events— hurricanes, tropical storms, heavy rains, even snowstorms,” he says. “When I have to contact the local media outlets to make an announcement about an event, it can be 15 or 20 minutes before the message even gets on television. With the web-based notification system, it goes out immediately.”

For those new to web-based notification systems, Derksen and Rizzo have a word of warning: Ease of use is critical.“The worst thing you can do is to buya system that only the tech guys canuse,” Rizzo says. “If the system is socomplex that only the director of technologycan push the buttons to make itwork, look for something else.“You also want a vendor who listens toyour suggestions,” he adds. “We werethe second district to implement the School World solution,so they’ve been very responsive.”

Also, the better systems are designed to allow parents to sign up to receive notifications in a range of formats, from e-mail to text messages and voicemail.

Text messages, however, aren’t free, Rizzo points out, and though parents should be required to authorize emergency notifications on all systems, it’s not fair to force them to pay to receive, say, a standard notice about an upcoming school budget vote. “We only do the SMS messages for emergencies,” Rizzo says.

Frank Rizzo"We’ve never had to use the system for a Columbine-type thing, but we’re ready. If we ever need it, it’s there."
— Frank Rizzo, East Aurora Union Free School District

Look for a system that offers a scheduling option, Derksen advises. “On the Honeywell system, I can schedule all the routine messages for the school year in advance and have them go out automatically,” he says. “It’s not just more convenient, it’s more efficient.”

Another feature Derksen likes is a live voice option for recorded messages. “Who doesn’t prefer the sound of a human voice over that computer-generated robot voice? I’d even argue that it makes the message more effective. In the case of an emergency, the sound of a human voice can make the message less alarming and a lot easier to hear.”

One of the features both Derksen and Rizzo say they are using more and more is the ability to create message groups. “We’ve got a group made up of principals only so we can contact them specifically,” Derksen says. “You could create groups based on the children who ride a particular bus. Say that bus 410 broke down along the highway; you could send out an alert just to the parents of those children.”

“We’re always looking for unique ways to use this technology,” Rizzo says. “You’re only limited by your imagination.”

John K.Waters is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.