The first day of any college class is an introduction. The instructor goes over the syllabus and gives students an idea of what they're going to learn. For Dennis Potter, a retired captain turned professor, the first day of class is also a day to prioritize safety.
"We go over evacuation plans, what students should or should not do if something happens," says Potter, who teaches Criminal Justice Administrative Behavior at Metropolitan State College in Denver.
One way he prioritizes safety is by requiring students to have their cell phones on during class (on vibrate). Potter was a lieutenant with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office and a first responder at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and themselves.
"I know through experience that if students have their cell phones and they all go off at the same time, something is wrong," he says.
The Clery Act, amended in August 2008, requires institutions of higher education that participate in the federal student financial aid program to provide students and employees with timely warnings of crimes that represent a threat to their safety. Colleges and universities use many different vended solutions to send out warnings. K-12 schools also benefit from the use of emergency notification systems, especially as technology continues to advance and best practices for putting these systems to work get even better.
'Parents are our customers'
Peter Pochowski, executive director of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers, says, "Communicating to our K-12 parents is critical. In a sense, parents are our customers; their children are in our schools."
Notification systems, which can send out phone calls, text messages or e-mail, provide a good initial contact in an emergency.
If a TV station reports there's a fire at a school, that school can instantly get 500 to 1,000 phone calls. Notification systems help eliminate many of those calls by delivering from hundreds to thousands of messages to parents' phones in minutes. For example, a message can report that the children are safe and emergency responders have controlled the situation, or that the school is being evacuated and parents will need to pick up their children at an alternative location. Typically a message will say more information will be made available on TV or radio.
Notification systems are important to the success of the school, and impact parental trust and confidence, Pochowski says. "Without communication, there's always a suspicion that 'You didn't tell us this because you're afraid of something' or 'You're hiding something,'" he says. "The more you communicate, the more open you are; the more transparency there is in the schools, the better."
Keeping contacts current
One of the problems with using phone numbers to deliver a message is that numbers change frequently. Pochowski has been in some school districts where 25 percent of kids' parents have had new phone numbers by the end of the first month of the school year.
Many parents don't have landline phones, and some have only throw-away phones. CTIA-The Wireless Association reports 270.3 million people, or 87 percent of the U.S. population, were wireless subscribers and 17.5 percent had wireless-only households at the end of 2008. "It's very difficult for schools to keep a current list of phone numbers," Pochowski says.
The University of Iowa (UI) tackled this problem by entering UI's entire directory of phone and e-mail contacts into its Hawk Alert database and requiring people who did not want to receive the alerts to opt out. Asking people to opt out instead of opt in made a huge difference, says Mark Katsouros, UI director of telecommunication and network services. Katsouros, along with E. Michael Staman and Richard Hach, wrote about UI's experience in "The Multi-Dimensional Nature of Emergency Communications Management," which was published in the January/February 2009 issue of EDUCAUSE Review.