Electronic Alerts: A Simple, Timely Message Can Make All the Difference


How do you stop a pandemic?

Seven centuries after the Black Plague wiped out a third of Europe's population, scientists are still working on a reliable answer to this evergreen question. But is it the right question? Asking how we stop a pandemic requires that one has already begun. Any elementary school teacher who makes all her pupils wash their hands after playing in the dirt at recess and any parent who insists his or her kids practice proper hygiene knows the more important question to ask is: "How do you prevent the pandemic from starting in the first place?"

With the current spread of H1N1 influenza, more widely known as "swine flu," and the five-alarm response it's prompted, grass roots campaigns are springing up all over at least two countries. But often with such efforts, an obstacle that impedes and sometimes halts the charge is the challenge of getting the word out.

In antediluvian times, before the 1990s, there was the trusty phone tree. One call to each of the next two branches, and in a matter of hours the whole community knows. That is, if the whole community was at home to answer the phone. And a matter of hours? That's fine for political action, but it takes mere seconds for a bacterium's travel plans to launch a pandemic.

Thankfully the Internet age has arrived, and, with it, a deceptively simple concept whose proper and timely implementation could change the future of all potential epidemics: the electronic alert.

A message that is essentially "broadcast" to registered e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers much like a cable television news report, an electronic alert is input once and reaches all of its intended destinations in a matter of seconds. A beep from the phone or an onscreen notification telling you that "You have new mail," and the entire community can instantly and simultaneously learn of something as dire as a public health warning, or it can simply receive this week's set of announcements about goings-on at the school.

Is Everyone in?
Apart from the capability to reach cell phones as well as e-mail accounts, what makes electronic alerts more sophisticated, or more valuable, than a simple e-mail account with functions to create address groups and organize them according to message types?

State College, PA-based Schoolwires is the maker of Centricity, an enterprise software application that offers electronic alert capabilities in its capacity as a tool for managing both Web site content and an online community. Edward Marflak, president and CEO of Schoolwires, explained why, when dealing with groups as large as a big city school district, community management is the key to all communications and the underlying advantage to tools like the electronic alert.

"At one time, a lot of districts thought of their Web sites as just Web sites," said Marflak. "Today leaders of districts really pivot on how well they communicate with their district. Superintendents have told me that people often judge a district on its Web site and its communications. It impacts community perception of the district, retention of students and families, and active community involvement in the district. It's a way of managing the district's image, its public relations, in an inclusive and efficient manner."

Beyond this, of course, is the desired goal of effective communications: to keep people informed. The Centricity electronic alert system has two types of messages to achieve this goal:

Broadcast alerts (limited character text, sent to e-mail or cell phone, depending on subscribers option)--immediately sent out to all subscribers via the medium for which they opted into the system, either e-mail or cell phone; these are most often used in "every second counts" situations, frequently weather emergencies, but also in cases of imminent danger, missing child "Amber" alerts, and, as in the current scenario, a public health emergency.

Content alerts (either plain text or HTML, sent to e-mail only)--usually transmitted to subscribers on a "need to know" basis, as they generally announce an update pertaining to a particular class, school, group, or organization; e.g., change in departure time for a field trip, schedule change for tomorrow's varsity football practice, new pages in the text for tonight's math homework, etc.

With the latter message type, Marflak noted, the community management aspect becomes quite significant. The system allows users to register not only for alerts, but for the areas of interest in terms of content. "With content subscriptions," he explained, "the individual gets the information he or she wants and needs, but without all the clutter on top of it." Everyone will receive all emergency broadcast alerts, but some subscribers want the time and place for teen soccer tryouts, and others need to be in their seats at the start of the first-grade ballet recital.

An option also exists for contingency preparation, which allows advance input of boilerplate messages. For example, the system can save a message that says, "[Name of school] will be closed on [Date] for parent-teacher conferences," or even "All schools in [Name of district] are closed today due to severe weather conditions." This allows administrators facing time pressure in an emergency, or those who send the same types of messages regularly, to send the alerts even more rapidly.

Some Things Are Indeed Cause for Alarm
If we accept that the current flu crisis has its physical origin in Mexico, then, depending on their respective proximities to the border, school districts in Texas are literally on or near the front line. One such district is Denton Independent School District in Denton, TX, 30 miles north of Fort Worth. Because cases of H1N1 had been reported the previous week in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and from there headed north-northwest to Lewisville, state and county health agencies still consider the Denton area high-risk.

Sharon Cox, DISD director of communications, is responsible for making sure all district emergency notifications are transmitted quickly and effectively. The week of May 4 was an especially active one for her department. On Saturday, May 2, the district had closed two elementary schools as a preventive measure . However, after both the Texas state and Denton County health departments issued strong directives on the spread of influenza cases, the district closed all of its schools Monday, May 4. On Wednesday of the same week, a new set of directives was issued, this time including one from the federally operated Centers for Disease Control, retracting the order to close schools and reducing the threat level posed by H1N1.

Cox noted that with 22,000 families and 3,000 employees in the district, there are several tactics she often utilizes to communicate important information.

"We utilized many different methods, from local newspapers and local cable TV stations to all broadcast media in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex," she explained. "We've also used an automated phone messenger to send out messages to [all of our] families and employees. Electronic alerts are becoming a more and more important method, though. Today's parents want information immediately."

And especially in the wake of an epidemic likely to affect school-age children disproportionately, for most parents immediate information is more than just desirable; it's critical. In Denton, this means making all pertinent information, including health department directives, school closure and reopening notices, activity schedule changes, and information about how the district is dealing with the crisis, available on the district Web site.

DISD Webmaster Carolyn Thomson said that anyone can access the district Web site for all the aforementioned information, but that most people need a reminder that it's there. The electronic alert program is voluntary and subscriber-based, so only those who register on the Web site will receive the announcements. She added, however, that there are currently 13,000 subscribers in the district and that, with every emergency such as the flu crisis, and with every situation of concern, such as this January when the region was hit with an unusually strong blizzard, more people rush to sign up.

Thomson said the district regularly encourages its residents, especially families of students, to subscribe to electronic alerts. The schools press the point at back-to-school events, PTA meetings, and other events that involve parents throughout the year. She said that while the district cannot require that all its families subscribe, this approach has worked very well in significantly increasing and improving communication throughout the DISD community.

But of Course, Not Everything
Not all electronic alerts are emergency signals, however, and in fact most serve a far more benign, but just as useful, purpose: getting the word out.

"The e-alert is essentially an electronic schoolbell," remarked Peter Lisi, superintendent of Woodcliff Lake School District, which enrolls 900 preK-8 students in two schools in Woodcliff Lake, NJ. "We use them on a weekly and routine basis. Like all schools, we have the need to send home upwards of a dozen announcements, from 'the school is selling wrapping paper,' to this week, things like we're going to start a protocol of using Purel before and after lunch for all the kids in the district. This is in relation to the pandemic."

Also related to the pandemic, Lisi said, was a recent announcement the district sent in order to quell potential fears, informing recipients "that we had no cases of flu, that we disinfect all surfaces in our schoolhouses daily, and that there was nothing to be concerned about regarding the spread of the virus."

The success of the electronic alert program is all the more gratifying to Lisi because of the quantum leap the district has made from its previous method of disseminating information to parents. He said they would copy a dozen or more paper announcements each week at both the elementary and middle school levels.

"We would make copies [of each announcement], and the teachers would stuff them into kids' backpacks. At the elementary level, we were told the flyers would come home in pieces, wrinkled, mixed in with apples." And middle schoolers tended to "edit" the announcements and decide Mom and Dad wouldn't be interested. "We had complaints of 'but I didn't know that was going on.' So the courier system was never very good."

Today, a combination of an electronic alert and a posting to the district's Web site is all the "traffic" required to get the full menu of announcements to any and all who might be interested. The district Webmaster posts all of the announcements every Thursday morning, and there is a link on the home page. "Then once a week," explained Lisi, "at noon on Thursday, the community gets an e-alert from me effectively saying, 'Hey look, the Thurs. folders are up! Go take a look!'" In no time, and with no paper or ink going to waste, everyone who wants to know knows.

Technical Difficulties Are Not an Option
One aspect of emergency communication that is sometimes overlooked is that, by virtue of its own raison d'etre, a system can malfunction or even shut down when it's needed most. DISD's Cox offered the example of a hurricane. The individuals responsible for getting the word out about emergency procedures, including where to go and how to get there, may have made it to safety along with their laptops, but it's quite unlikely they took the server with them. And once the storm has passed, how were they to let everyone know when it's safe to return and when classes will resume?

"We have more than 1,000 districts hosted by our central server farm," said Schoolwires' Marflak. He added that while Centricity is available for upload onto individual district servers, "most of our customers prefer to have us host and manage their communities."

The main advantage of centralized hosting, he explained, is often realized in the clutch. "In an emergency situation this has to work. Because we have a central server with 24-hour technical management, reliable security and multiple redundancies, we can ensure it will, regardless of external circumstances."

In addition, Marflak noted, the people using electronic alert systems are most often administrators and teachers, not technicians. "We have people who are experts at managing this type of enterprise software. It's easier than having 1,000-plus districts individually train their IT people to manage it."

For schools that don't require Centricity's scope, other providers offer a number of options exclusively for mass notification. Colorado Springs-based Notify.com is a Web-based service that manages its clients' electronic alert needs from a central server, removing the need for a local server at the school or district level, or even for software to be installed on the user's computer. School System Alert, from Arlington, TX-based NetStrategies and Management, offers either Web-based centralized hosting from its own network operations center or a self-hosted solution for districts that choose to manage both hardware and software internally.

Tell All Your Friends, All at Once
Whenever people discuss politics in terms of actually accomplishing things that might benefit society, the term "grass roots" inevitably arises. But grass roots action isn't reserved for the political arena. Though rarely discussed using the same vernacular, it can also apply to something as simple as getting everyone of all ages to wash their hands and not wipe runny noses on their sleeves. A few energetic neighbors might knock on doors in a grass roots effort to get everyone out to the annual community picnic. It's really any effort to transmit a message that, rather than being bounced off a satellite dish, begins from the bottom (the "roots") and builds upward. What define such an effort are the intimacy of a small community and, when necessary, the time-honored tool of personal persuasion.

At one time, effective methods included blanketing the streets with colored paper flyers or pulling out the neighborhood phone tree and locating your branch and the two that protrude from it. That was then, but with today's technology we can save all that time and even more wasted paper. And while it may seem a bit paradoxical to use a nationally centralized host network as a tool for a local grass roots campaign, the immediacy and security factors should certainly outweigh any nostalgia for far less efficient traditions.

But whether a district uses remote hosting or opts to manage its system locally, the value of the electronic alert is obvious. Few people want to be the last to receive important information, and no one wants to be left uninformed until it's too late to take appropriate action. And for a parent, whether that action is to do everything possible to keep her children safe and healthy, or simply to be in the front row when his son or daughter scores the winning basket or stars in the big musical production, there are simply no alternatives to quick and accurate communication.

Administrators in districts of any size can appreciate the ability to organize content as being integral to accuracy. As for speed, it just doesn't get any quicker than right away.

About the Author

Scott Aronowitz is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas. He has covered the technology, advertising, and entertainment sectors for seven years. He can be reached here.