The problem with the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma and other parts of the Midwest in May was not necessarily a lack of mass notification. It was, according to reports, a lack of time, due to the nature of the storm. Residents of Moore had about 36 minutes to prepare for a mile-wide tornado that flattened the Oklahoma City suburb, killing two dozen people, according to the National Weather Service. The federal agency issued its first warning for residents to seek shelter at 2:40 p.m. local time on May 20, 16 minutes before the tornado touched down about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of the city, said David Andra, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Norman, Oklahoma. The twister reached Moore at 3:16 p.m., he said, topping the service’s scale for tornadoes with winds of more than 200 miles per hour. “The average lead time for tornado warnings is 14 minutes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. So when the tornadoes struck, mass notification systems were in place.

All of which make effective mass notification systems in K-12 schools more important. The systems can include alerting students for active shooters, natural disasters, school closings and unfortunately, EF5 tornadoes.     

Littleton Public Schools in Littleton, Co. is utilizing the services of AlertNow to provide a tool when mass communication is needed.  The district is also currently in the process of evaluating other providers, says Guy Grace, Manager of Security and Emergency Planning for the school district. Grace has been working in K-12 security and emergency preparedness for 24 years.

“To have a successful school district you have to have a safe and secure environment that fosters student achievement,” Grace explains. “Communication and getting your message out to the parents and the community is very important in helping maintain that safe and secure environment. In fact, over the years I have found myself working quite closely with our district’s Public Information Officer to get the proper message out when emergencies and security related situations impact the schools. This is important because we have found a poorly/improperly conveyed message regarding school safety can have a dramatic impact on school business for extended periods of time which can impact the learning environment.  For the last several years we have evolved to using mass notification to get our message out to parents and community. One of the great traits of mass notification is that it can be geared for particular recipients. For example, if one school was to implement a lockdown, then we could notify the groups that need to know about the situation.  The groups would get a voicemail and text message with information about the emergency and what they need to do.  What these messages also do is let the parents know that their children are ok. Mass notification alleviates the number of calls we get into the schools from parents because they have information, and this allows the school Incident Command Team to focus on the emergency on hand. The ability to focus on specific audiences is important and used quite often.” 

However, he notes, there are situations where all the groups must receive information. For example immediately after the Sandy Hook tragedy last December, “Our Superintendent’s voice and letter was in every enrollee’s voice mail by the end of the day,” Grace says. “This global communication option was utilized several times of over the next six weeks to give updates and information about several security implementations and enhancements being implemented that helped calm the community’s fears. Quite frankly, without mass notification I suspect that we would have been very stressed.”

Harford County Public Schools in Bel Air, Md. is using a system from Blackboard Connect 5 that generates reports that allow security to determine whether or not a call was answered, says Robert A. Benedetto, Chief of Security of the Department of Safety and Security for the school district.                “From a technical standpoint, the system works very well,” he says. “It is user-friendly and generates the calls, emails and texts in a timely fashion. One of the major features that we would like to see is the ability to review a delivery report of the emails and texts to see if they were delivered successfully. There is currently no way to tell if there were bounce-back emails from incorrect addresses. If we knew the bounce-back ratio, we would be able to clean the data to allow the reach to become more effective.” 

The challenges that Benedetto and his staff face have less to do with the use of the system and more to do with the data management system and the input details of student data, he notes. “You are only given so many fields to pull data – it is sometimes difficult with all the other demands on our school-based staff to be able to take the time to ensure that each email address is placed in the appropriate field. To ensure that we could pull that data without placing a heavier burden on our staff was to utilize the parent portal. In that online portal, parents can update, manage and customize their notifications. This is the first year of implementation for this system and, after working out some minor kinks, it has proven to be an effective tool for our parents. We hope to expand the use of that portal next school year by raising awareness of the service in the community.”

The only other issue with mass notification, says Benedetto, is timing. “Our parents and students communicate quicker than even the highest model of rapid notification system,” he says. “That is not a reflection on the system but rather on the level at which communication travels in today’s society. We continuously work to improve the timing and effectiveness of our communication.”



Mass Notification by Flute


In addition to sending mass alerts for active shooters and tornadoes, mass notification can alert for flash floods.

   For example, Venice, Italy, is built on 118 islands separated by canals on northeast Italy’s Adriatic Coast. The city’s water level fluctuates based on tides and weather conditions. Even slight increases can prevent boats from using bridges with limited clearance, which causes disruption for commuters and businesses. When pavements disappear under water, raised walkways need to be erected. The city’s commuters are used to it, but accurate, timely information on the tides is critical to keep daily life on track.

            Numerous technologies are employed to keep city residents and visitors informed about water levels, including a website, a toll-free phone line, a smartphone app and touchscreen information points around the city. An old siren-based audio system had also been used, but it could only broadcast one alert signal and was increasingly unreliable due to mechanical deterioration.

            Venice’s Tidal Forecasting and Signaling Centre has employed a sound system to alert citizens in advance about an incoming high tide.  The new multi-tone audio system uses a specially developed version of Community’s R.5 loudspeaker, designed precisely for the power, frequency response and dispersion required. The loudspeakers play a series of tones, starting with simple flute sounds that inform residents of the coming tidal levels.

            Tight pattern control on the sound system allows the sound to travel only where it is directed and away from neighboring areas. For amplification, a four-channel power amplifier streams the audio and is connected by wireless Internet to the city’s tidal center’s control room, which generates the appropriate alert signal.



Opt-In vs. Opt-Out Alerts


The opt-out method of automatically enrolling students in a college or university’s emergency alert system has significantly increased in popularity in the last few years. By collecting data upfront, colleges and universities are taking a similar approach to commercial campuses and industrial plants, which utilize human resource databases to enroll employees. It is the most effective way to sign up the campus population as opposed to an opt-in approach that averages up to 25 percent in sign-ups. This is especially important during a crisis, where there is an increased need to reach the entire community, not just the percentage that opted-in. 

However, the opt-out system is not a guaranteed solution for getting the right contact information into the system as a university may only have enterprise e-mail addresses, which students may not use. Requiring students to provide mobile phone numbers as part of registration and also testing the numbers on a regular basis will enhance the effectiveness of opt-out policies.

Some states have even taken legislative action. The Texas House Bill 2758, which took effect in 2011, mandates that all institutions of higher education establish an emergency alert system where, at the time of registration, a personal telephone number or email address must be obtained from the student or staff member to be registered.


About the Author:

 Phil Conradt is a product manager, Mass Notification, for Eaton’s Cooper Notification business.