Dec 16 2009

Emergency Notification Systems Get the Word Out

School districts deploy IP-based products that support everything from voice to texting and even social media.

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Emergency Notification Systems Get the Word Out

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There's a security threat at an elementary school. A water main has broken, flooding the high school's basement. A tornado is speeding toward the main administration building. A suspicious package just arrived in the mail room of a middle school. The police have cordoned off the vocational school's neighborhood, and traffic is backed up for miles.

No matter what the emergency, you need to notify a lot of people in a hurry. How do you do it?

As the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech tragically proved, yesterday's technologies – sirens, calling trees and the emergency broadcast network – are no longer sufficient.

That's why school districts large and small are adopting IP-based systems that integrate a wide range of communications technologies, from voice to texting to Twitter.

When San Ramon Valley Unified School District (SRVUSD) began modernizing its facilities a few years ago, it cast aside its aging phone and retooled its public address system and its outdated Emergency Notification System (ENS) and tied nine of its 31 schools together with a single IP-based system.

Using Singlewire Software's InformaCast, the Northern California district connected its loudspeakers, bells and ENS to an IP-based phone system from Cisco. The reason? More bang for the buck, says Jon Threshie, former director of technology for SRVUSD.

“We captured substantial construction cost savings by going with a single solution,” Threshie says. “By eliminating conduit and cable infrastructure, for the same money we could end up not only with a significantly superior telephone system for the school, but also a districtwide system as well.”

Approximately 96% of the United States is covered by some type of 911 service.

Because the public address speakers can be accessed individually, administrators can make specific announcements to, say, all first-grade classrooms or students on the playground, as well as issue campuswide alerts, by choosing from prefab templates.

On the other end of the spectrum, Dayton City School in rural Rhea County, Tenn., elected to go with a Short Message Service (SMS)-based notification system from AlertU.

Matt Marcus, Dayton City School's director of information and technology services,
says the neighboring school districts' voice-based notification systems were fraught with problems – such as 4 a.m. calls to families of students who'd moved across the country. He wanted a text-based system where families could opt in or out as desired.

Now, if his school needs to close because of inclement weather or rampant H1N1 virus, Marcus logs onto AlertU's site to send the notification via an SMS text. AlertU automatically sends text messages to school staff and faculty, parents, the media and the school's Twitter account and Facebook group.

Once you've deployed an ENS, the hard work is just beginning, warns Bo Mitchell, president of 911 Consulting and a former Connecticut police commissioner. 

An effective notification system must be part of a comprehensive emergency response plan, which entails far more than dialing 911 and pinning an evacuation map to the wall. This is where 99 percent of organizations fail, Mitchell says.

Mitchell's advice is to establish a command and control infrastructure. Everyone needs to know who has the authority to issue an alert, who needs to receive it, and who is responsible for keeping everyone updated as the situation unfolds.

Everyone – not just safety coordinators – must be schooled about what to do in case of emergency. Organizations need to train all their personnel, run regular drills on the system and assess what works and what doesn't. Tabletop exercises, a fast and inexpensive way to test your plan and train your staff, should be held once every quarter.

You also must be able to perform a headcount, so you know if someone is on vacation, rather than trapped on the 11th floor. Mitchell has developed a technology called 911 Headcount that lets employees check in via their phones or PCs when a crisis hits.

“This is a 100 percent business,” says Mitchell. “If one person gets injured or worse because your emergency response plan was flawed, you've failed.”

ENS Deployment Tips

  • Think multimode. You'll need to issue alerts to a wide range of devices, from phones and computers to TV sets and loudspeakers. Ideally, a single ENS will talk to all devices you need to reach.
  • Plan to send multiple alerts. People may miss the first alert or not take it seriously. You may need to reach them on a specific device. And you'll need to keep them updated as the situation changes.
  • Script your outgoing alerts before a crisis hits. Even then, you'll have to customize alerts for each situation.
  • Encourage participation. Employees may be automatically enrolled in an ENS, but systems that alert the general public are usually voluntary. Encourage the community to sign up by offering useful daily information, such as traffic or weather updates.
  • Have a backup plan. Generators may fail and cell phone service may become overloaded. In a worst-case scenario, you might need a low-tech way to spread the word.