Magazine article District Administration

The Evolution of Notification Systems: Administrators' Usage of These Emergency Technologies Widens

Magazine article District Administration

The Evolution of Notification Systems: Administrators' Usage of These Emergency Technologies Widens

Article excerpt

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The American public's favorite methods of notification are still phone and e-mail, but advancements in technology over the past several years have changed the way many district leaders contact parents when an emergency arises at school. The latest tech feature popular in the general public--text messages--is taking hold in some districts.

Even with the benefits of these higher-tech options, television broadcasts and radio announcements remain the most popular conduits for sending information from schools, businesses and governments to large groups of people, according to This Is a Test This Is Only a Test, a CDW-G survey released in January. And only 39 percent of respondents to the survey say their school district or office is "very strong" or "good" at relaying emergency information.

On top of that, another 2008 CDW-G survey, School Safety Index, indicates that only 45 percent of districts use a mass notification system. Out of those, 70 percent use automated phone messages, 61 percent use e-mail alerts, and just 32 percent use text messages, even though 45 percent nationwide believe that text messages are convenient for sending and receiving information. The School Safety Index survey of 403 public school district IT and security directors revealed that district employees cited budget constraints as a barrier to purchasing and implementing a notification system and too few staff member resources for lags in technology.

Providers of some mass notification systems that automatically call parents also offer texting and e-mails through the same service. "You would want a hybrid system that also does voice, text and e-mail," to offer more ways to communicate, explains Houston Thomas, public safety business development manager for CDW-G.

Multitasking Is Hey

Some systems allow parents to log in to their school's designated Web site using their own contact information, while others use the school's own database of contact numbers for parents, teachers and staff to create a database for their mass notification system.

School districts such as the Shelbyville (Ind.) Central School District allow parents to sign on to a Web site and enter phone numbers that the district can call to send text messages. Parents who ask for text messages also receive telephone calls and e-mails, explains district spokeswoman Kim Owens. "You can add pagers, mom's e-mail, dad's e-mail. You can customize on four different levels," she says.

"The technology is there. It's a lot more affordable, a lot more capable as well, but I think the schools have a lot more room to grow and make them more effective," says Bob Kirby, senior director of K- 12 Education for CDW-G.

District leaders must realize that e-mail and texting are becoming "primary communication tools" that can "reach a large number of people very quickly," Kirby says. District administrators should evaluate their emergency notification systems to see how effective they are in reaching large numbers of administrators, staff, parents and even students. "Finally, districts need to increase parent and community awareness about the use of mass notification systems," Kirby says, through traditional means such as newspapers, newsletters and public meetings.

On a cold day in February, an early morning fire at the Knauf Fiberglass plant in Shelbyville sent billows of black smoke near Coulston Elementary School, Owens recalls. District officials, using Honeywell's Instant Alert, called parents at home, at work and by cell phone and used text messages and e-mail stating, "Coulston Elementary School will be dosed on Friday due to the school's proximity to the Knauf fire and smoky conditions in the building."

District leaders notified parents at the other two elementary schools, as well as the middle school and high school, about dosing the buildings early due to a drop in water pressure. …

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