Calm in the Face of Crisis

When faced with a serious threat, an Iowa school district quickly mitigates panic and confusion with the help of a newly implemented mass notification system.

Just before dinnertime on an unseasonably warm Sunday in early November last year, Jarrett Peterson, communications and marketing coordinator for Ankeny Community School District (IA), got a call from the district office. It was the kind of call he had hoped he'd never have to take: Ankeny High School had received a bomb threat.

Peterson was told to report immediately to the Emergency Operations Center--a room that could quickly be set up as a dedicated radio-, phone-, and computer-equipped headquarters at the district office--where he would meet with 15 other emergency operations team members to make some quick decisions about protocols to be followed over the days ahead.

A Well-Laid Plan
Despite shocking incidents in idyllic towns like Columbine, CO (1999), and Nickel Mines, PA (2006), major violence in pastoral Ankeny, a rapidly growing community of 45,000 located about seven miles from the heart of Des Moines, IA, still did not seem likely. In fact, Ankeny's well-kept parks and lakes had earned it a place on Family Circle magazine's "Top Ten Best Towns for Families" list in 2008, as well as Money magazine's "Top 100 Best Places to Live" list in 2009.

Even so, Ankeny, like many other school districts across the country, knew that an emergency preparedness plan was crucial. If nothing else, natural disasters and extreme weather conditions warranted an organized procedure for dealing with school closings. A Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools federal grant helped Ankeny finance the district's emergency preparedness plan and bring in an outside consultant with experience in homeland security to assist in developing and carrying out a plan.

Although the district already had its emergency preparedness plan in place when it received the written bomb threat, less than two weeks had passed since Ankeny had done an initial small-scale test of its newly acquired AlertNow mass notification system from Blackboard. This new program offered broader and more customizable notification options and integrated a full-fledged emergency notification strategy with the district's data management and communications systems.

From Plan to Action
At the Emergency Operations Center that Sunday, Peterson and his colleagues evaluated the situation, including the specifics of the threat and police findings. There, they discussed what security measures would be best for Ankeny High School to take over the next couple of days, as well as what message they should send immediately to parents, educators, and the community. The group decided to close the school the following day and quickly make announcements to all stakeholders that would include essential facts about the situation, as well as instructions for finding additional information. As the district communications specialist, Peterson was responsible for articulating that core information and ensuring that it was dispatched in a timely manner using AlertNow.

The police department had completed one sweep of the facility as the Emergency Operations Center was being activated, and as Peterson worked to craft the appropriate messages, police swept the building and its surroundings for explosives a second time. The school's administrators were also on hand to help identify any unusual or suspicious changes in the building's appearance.

Back at the Emergency Operations Center, Peterson had finalized what would be his first communication to staff and parents: the script for a voicemail that relayed the main facts of the situation. Before proceeding, he had another operations team member review the draft to ensure that he had interpreted the information correctly. Once the team approved the wording, administrators, principals, and staff received the information first via the school's Microsoft Outlook e-mail system.

The AlertNow system allows users to upload or copy-and-paste the script from Microsoft Word into the system software. The software then offers the option of having the message read and recorded by a live person or by a computer through a text-to-speech feature. Peterson logged on to the AlertNow website and opted for the personal recording. "They needed to hear a voice from a real person in the district," he says.

Peterson then used the software to send a message to the parents of the affected high school students. The voicemail included the following key messaging: The school had received a bomb threat; the police had been notified; school would be closed Monday but would reopen Tuesday; the public would not be allowed on the school facility on Monday; and, on Tuesday, students were not to bring backpacks or book bags to campus. The message also directed parents to the school website for more detailed information. Peterson ensured that the voicemail message was less than 60 seconds in length, the maximum amount of time to include key information without confusing recipients with too much detail or risk exceeding the recording length of most voicemail systems.

Peterson relayed the message to all numbers on file for each student's household, including numbers for cell phones, office phones, home phones, or care providers' phones. Within 25 minutes of being notified of the bomb threat, the district had sent 4,900 voicemails to the families of its high school's 1,630 students.

After sending the voicemails, Peterson then sent out the same message to parents via e-mail--more than 1,700 notices in all--with links to the district website, where parents could find more information. He also notified staff members with the same essential information that he had sent to parents, but with additional customized details about work hours, contracts, and other matters, as well as a link to the district's employee portal.

After wrapping up initial parent and staff communications, Peterson drafted a press release to alert local radio and television stations and print media. Prior to AlertNow, press releases had been the primary communication channel for the district during emergencies.

Back at Ankeny High School, the police department completed its thorough sweeps of the grounds and found them clean. Monday passed without incident, and Tuesday students returned to school, where Peterson reports that there was "a very high rate of compliance" with the directive to not bring backpacks.

Despite the fact that many families had not yet updated their contact information for the year, says Peterson, the AlertNow system confirmed in a delivery report that it was able to reach 96 percent of the students' families through the first voicemail message, and "everything went smoothly."

A Second Scare
The fear and trepidation of the week was not yet over for students, parents, or district personnel. Just one day after Ankeny High School students had returned to classes, the district received another written bomb threat. This time, though, Northview Middle School was the target.

"It was late in the afternoon, and school was almost out," says Peterson of this second emergency. The district office was notified of the threat by Northview administration, at which point the principal immediately alerted staff and began implementing evacuation procedures. Teachers had students file out fire-drill style and lead them to a sports complex adjacent to the school.

Meanwhile, the district office again notified the police, and the emergency operations team assembled once more and went into action, working down the chain of procedures. A response team member was also sent to the middle school to act as a public information officer for any media that arrived on the scene. Because students were on campus during this emergency, much of the parent messaging had to do with where to pick up children. The AlertNow system allowed the response team to contact only those families with students in the affected building. A total of 3,600 voicemails and 1,300 e-mails were dispatched.

Once the school accounted for all of the students and dismissed them from the sports complex, the team started a further evaluation of the specifics of the situation. Based on their assessment, they decided that school would remain open the following day, Thursday. The middle school would implement the same security measures that the high school had implemented earlier in the week, including increased staff presence, police presence, and a ban on book bags. Again, Peterson drafted staff and parent voicemail and e-mail messages, as well as a press release to send out to local media.

The Debrief
In the wake of the emergencies, members of the emergency response team met to review and evaluate procedures and, Peterson explains, talk about "what went well and not so well." With the help of the consultant who had assisted the district in developing its plan, the team wrote a report that examined the details of the week's events. Peterson applauded the district for conducting regular and full-scale emergency drills in advance of the threats, citing the schools' preparedness as a primary reason that "everything fell into place." He also acknowledged the benefit of having outgoing notifications reviewed by more than one key member of the operations team. (During the Northview incident, one of Peterson's colleagues caught and corrected an error in the street directions regarding the temporarily relocated student pickup area.)

Many parents offered positive feedback, as well, explaining that they felt confident that good decisions were being made and that the situation was in hand. They also acknowledged that the personally recorded voicemail, in particular, had calmed them. The district gathered this feedback through the AlertNow system, receiving 1,300 responses within the first 72 hours of sending out survey questions. Previously, when the district had sent home written communications asking for feedback, the return rate had been poor, resulting in only 1,200 responses districtwide over a three-week period.

"If I had it to do over again," says Peterson, "I'd tweak a couple of areas, including omitting one or two details from the initial voicemail and putting them on the website." He also notes a need to have more than one person handling communications--three, ideally--to speed up the flow of information; a team could send messages through different channels simultaneously, instead of consecutively. In addition, one person could focus on crafting messages, while the other two could focus on disseminating them. Finally, Peterson suggests that adding a centralized network printer to the Emergency Operations Center would eliminate the need to use a printer in a distant office to produce hard copies of the communications for operations personnel to sign.

Overall, Peterson emphasizes the importance of making emergency preparedness a districtwide priority. He acknowledges that while focusing on a clear and organized emergency plan can feel like a "tacked-on chore" in the midst of all the tasks that schools must deal with on a daily basis, it is nonetheless "time well spent." After all, he points out, "In the final analysis, what is more important than the safety and security of students and staff?"