“Back in the day,” school emergency planning was limited to periodic fire drills. In certain regions of the U.S., these might be supplemented with tornado1, hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami drills. School-related emergency notifications in my home state of Michigan consisted of snow days, which were announced on the local radio station. My school did not have phone tree, nor was one needed. Long-distance calls required an operator.
So many things have changed since then, including the types of threats, the extremity of violence, the paranoia and litigiousness of of parents, and the mandates of various authorities. Schools need more than local radio station announcements and phone trees.
So it was was that I found myself taking a deep dive into school emergency preparedness in general, and emergency notification systems specifically.
Many schools use some form of emergency notification systems (ENS) to quickly get emergency information to students, parents, and employees via text messages, email, automated phone calls, fax, desktop alerts, RSS, and town criers. (Okay, maybe not the last one. But holographic town criers might be on the horizon.) The “emergency” could be as mundane as a snow day or as horrific as a school shooting.
While researching the qualities of a good ENS I discovered that there are many companies offering such services, ranging from small, regional mom-and-pop shops to huge, national players. Some companies focus on government and large corporations, others target mid-size companies and colleges, and a relative few specialize in the K-12 market. Your school’s choice will depend on a number of factors, including the types of hazards in your area, the size of your school, the diversity of devices you wish to support, and of course, your budget.
To help me sort through all of the options, I developed a list of attributes present in various systems. What follows is a list of some of those attributes, along with a brief explanation and value judgment.
- Host it yourself or SAS (software as service model). This is a question of where to place your bets. If you have an earthquake, fire-proof, flood-proof server room with failsafe emergency power then why not host your ENS on campus? On the other hand, of the Internet, land lines, cell phone and text messaging infrastructure is knocked out (think EMP pulse warfare), the Internet won’t work. But then, you’re probably toast anyway. Advantage: SAS.
- All your eggs in one basket (single point of failure or multiple points clustered in the same geographic region ) or hosted in multiple regions. Advantage: multi-region companies. Hint #1: Even if a company is multi-region in reach, make sure that they don’t have 90% of their customers in your area as a regional disaster could overload their system. Hint #2: Make sure that the company or software you are using has multiple telecom partners, just in case an incident takes one of them out.
- Phone-centric or multi-mode means of contacting users. One system I ran across was very, very inexpensive. All it did was broadcast your recorded message to phones, dialing them over and over again until someone (or a machine) answered. The first thing to go off-line in a large emergency are phones; either the lines are down or the system is overwhelmed. But there are so many other ways to contact people that are just as or even more effective, including email, text messages, Twitter, Facebook, desktop alerts, digital signage, PA systems, broadcast through blue-light emergency phones. Why limit yourself? Advantage: multi-mode.
- Low system use during idle times. Whether or not you host the system yourself or use SAS, you want to ENC system to be untaxed most of the time. If you are hosting the system, put it on its own box, with its own dedicated circuit. This is not a service you want sitting on a virtual machine in your closet. A 2% CPU and network use would be ideal. Advantage: companies with lots of servers per customer.
- Smartphone application. If you can’t get to your phone or your computer, your next best option is a smartphone with a dedicated application. Assuming the Internet is working, a smartphone app should be much faster than a web browser. If the Internet is not accessible, then perhaps you can get through via phone or SMS. Advantage: companies with smartphone apps.
- Ease-of-Use. Emergencies are not the time to learn the Command Line Interface. The system must be simple to understand, even by people unfamiliar with its use. People may not be at their best in an emergency. They may forget their training, not be able to find the manual, or may panic when things don’t go right. Make sure the system you use has an intuitive interface, informative error messages and is forgiving of user entry mistakes. Advantage: anything that looks like Apple designed it.
- Common Alerting Protocol Compliant. According to Wikipedia,”the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) is an XML-based data format for exchanging public warnings and emergencies between alerting technologies.” This capability could save precious minutes in alerting you to a potential threat by allowing emergency agencies in your area to directly communicate with your SMS. Advantage: CAPC-compliant systems.
- SIS integration. You want your ENS to have the latest emergency contact information for employees, students, and parents. This is, hopefully, in your student information system (SIS) or some other authoritative directory that automatically updates records in the ENS. Advantage: SIS, LDAP or other directory integration.
- Data encryption. Wherever you keep your data, on a local server or a the cloud-based SAS system, you want the contact information of your constituents to be secure at every point in the process, including while in transit over ethernet or wireless connections. Advantage: Encrypted storage and secure protocols.
- Caller ID Customization. We all do it. If we don’t recognize the number that is calling we may be inclined let it go to voicemail. If your ENS is broadcasting a phone message from your behalf in from a 701 area code (hat’s off to my North Dakota friends), you may not have any idea who or what it is that’s calling. The ENS must be able to identify itself as a call from your school, not some unknown telemarketer. Advantage: Caller ID customization.
- 24 x 7 x 365 live support. ‘Nuf said.
- in the 1950′s and 60′s, we also practiced nuclear bomb drills, which were very similar to tornado drills, though with a more serious air. The saying, even among reverent Catholic kids, was “”Get under your desk, put your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye. ↩