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

By Waters, John K. | T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), April 2007 | Go to article overview

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


Waters, John K., T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)


IT 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 emergency communications 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 (www.schoolworld.com), 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 entire region 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 text messages.

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 a message 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 (www.instantalert.honeywell.com).

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.

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's Instant Alert system in 2004.

"When you rely on old-style phone trees, you're managing the phones, not the emergency," O'Brien says. …

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