Schools turn to mass notification systems — not only during emergencies but for daily operations, too.
The situation easily could have become a major time-waster: A semitrailer attempting to make a delivery to a Gulliver Schools campus found its normal access route blocked by several unattended parked cars.
But thanks to the deployment of InformaCast, a mass notification system from CDW•G, in August, a school administrator was able to quickly broadcast the vehicles’ license numbers to IP phones across the entire campus and asked the owners to move their cars.
“With this system, we can now get information out in a matter of seconds,” says Michelle Nieto, Gulliver Schools’ IT manager. “It’s real-time, and it gets to everyone on campus within reach of an IP phone.”
With five schools and an administration office located within a short distance of one another in Miami and Coral Gables, Fla., Gulliver Schools relies on the mass notification tool to swiftly and reliably communicate information — ranging from general campus announcements and fire drills to vital procedures during a hurricane or other emergency — to its 2,100 students and 500 staff members.
Gulliver is but one of a number of K–12 organizations discovering the many benefits afforded by mass notification systems. Unlocking enormous possibilities, the systems address the need for speed, breadth, standardization, consistency and, in many cases, two-way communication, says Roberta Witty, research vice president for Gartner of Stamford, Conn.
Mass communications systems first became popular after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Witty says. Subsequent emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina and the shootings at Virginia Tech, further thrust the products into the spotlight. “The use of these tools has skyrocketed,” Witty says. “There’s not an industry that isn’t looking at them.”
For Gulliver Schools, the ability to provide communications across campuses has been a primary benefit. InformaCast lets users push an audio stream or a text message to multiple IP phones, IP speakers and overhead paging systems simultaneously. An administrator can select a prerecorded message or customize a live broadcast through either a password-protected web page or the IP phone services menu.
“Because we’re located on multiple campuses, we need to have transparency, agility and, at the same time, standardization across the board,” Nieto says, noting that the schools’ previous analog system failed to meet those requirements. “We needed it to be seamless.”
Gulliver Schools is also taking advantage of InformaCast’s bell scheduler, which centralizes all paging, clocks and bells on a single server. As a result, savings are achieved in hardware costs, power and wiring, because overhead speakers are no longer required in every classroom. Instead, bells ring out over IP phones, which are located in all the classrooms and offices.
“We’re using infrastructure we already have — the IP phones — so we don’t have to rewire anything,” says Charlie Garcia, the schools’ infrastructure operations supervisor.
Get the Word Out
At Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Oceanside, Calif., mass notification systems not only have proved invaluable during emergencies but also have been instrumental in helping kids succeed. The school relies on a districtwide system that makes outbound calls to parents, informing them of upcoming holidays, special events and general news.
“It reaches 1,500 students in about 20 minutes,” says Principal Bob Rowe.
The system earned high marks for its emergency capabilities last year, when a suspected car thief took refuge on campus while attempting to evade police. Although the school was locked down and the suspect apprehended, news of the episode spread quickly throughout the community, prompting Rowe to customize and distribute a message to all parents that the incident had been resolved safely.
“We were able to calm everyone down within 30 minutes, rather than having chaos all day long with parents calling or coming to campus,” he says.
No Need for Emergencies
Last year, the middle school deployed a second, web-based system that lets teachers and administrators select from prerecorded messages. With the touch of a button, they can send a reminder to an entire class to study for an upcoming test, alert parents of student absences or even report a missing homework assignment.
“It’s a more practical way to communicate on a regular basis,” Rowe says. “It’s empowered teachers to more effectively communicate with students and families.”
Adds Gartner’s Witty, “We’re seeing these systems increasingly used not for just emergencies but for daily operations.”
For instance, at Martin Luther King, Rowe uses the mass notification system to create a daily report of students who don’t turn in required assignments, all of whom must attend study hall at lunch. At the beginning of the last school year, 244 students on average did not turn in work or turned in incomplete assignments each day. That number plummeted to 30 by the end of the year, which Rowe attributes directly to the mass notification system.
“It’s how we hold kids accountable,” he says. “We need these types of tools to help them succeed.”
The fact that the tools are easy to use is also appealing. “InformaCast allows us to handle any changes and support internally, which yields a reduction of professional services,” Gulliver Schools’ Nieto says.
Although the school district’s administrators report that it is too early to ascertain InformCast’s exact return on investment, IT Finance Supervisor Zabrina Grillo-Pineiro says you can’t put a price tag on the system’s value.
“Knowing that we have a system that we can depend on, that is user-friendly and allows us to easily manipulate our communications … that is priceless,” she says. “That was really our driving factor in purchasing this solution.”
Now Hear This!
K–12 schools use mass notifications for a wide array of communications:
- An early release in the event of a snowstorm, hurricane or other weather condition
- A special message from the superintendent or principal
- Notes about students’ absences
- Emergency procedures
- Reminders when time-sensitive actions are required
- Event cancellations
- Missed homework assignments
- Test reminders
Benefits of Mass Notification
Ease of use • Protection for students and staff • Instant message delivery Reliable performance • Reduced tasks • Affordable price • Easy deployment