Making the Most of Alert Notification Systems

Eleven tips for using emergency communication solutions in your district.

Districts are finding that alert notification systems that deliver automated phone messages are an effective way to reach parents and employees. Implementing the technology is one thing; getting the most out of it is another. Andy Berning, chief information officer and chief technology officer of the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District in Carrollton, Texas, and Randy Taylor, supervisor of applications for Marion County Public Schools in Ocala, Florida, offer their strategies for the latter.

1. Be clear about what you're trying to accomplish.

For Marion County, the first goal was the ability to get in touch with parents in emergencies, says Taylor, whose district endured three hurricanes in 2004. The district's second goal was the ability to target specific groups of students. In 2005 it signed up to use Safe-T-Net's ALERTNOW system.

The Carrollton-Farmers district took a similar approach. Its system, NTI's Connect-ED, is for important school business only, Berning says. "We were very clear that it was for emergencies, for contacting parents about what was going on at the school," he says. "And we were also very clear about what it was not to be used for: garage sales, selling puppies, or something like that."

2. Put one person in charge.

When the Carrollton-Farmers district, located in suburban Dallas, put its system in place last spring, it had a goal: continuity among the district's 45 campuses, which had previously been using separate phone lines and service accounts.

To do this, Carrollton-Farmers put a single representative from each campus—usually an administrator—in charge. That person, while not necessarily recording each call, is responsible for the content of calls and system operation, Berning says.

3. Carefully select which numbers to use.

Marion County chose to only use contact numbers for custodial parents and guardians.

"That way we're not calling aunts and uncles and doctors who may be in the contact information," Taylor says. The district uploaded numbers for homes, work, cell phones, and pagers.

4. Set up categories of message recipients.

Marion County set up different configurations of students and employees, such as Spanish-speaking students, district faculty, and elementary school instructors.

"Principals can create their own dynamic groups of lists," Taylor says. "For example, if a high school is doing an open house for 10th graders, they can contact just parents of 10th graders."

5. Put thought and effort into training.

Training is vital, Berning says. The Carrollton-Farmers district spent two hours with each campus administrator in charge of system usage. Public relations department employees and Connect-ED representatives met with administrators face-to-face to demonstrate how the system works and spell out acceptable and nonacceptable uses for it—and to do practice recordings.

6. Don't overuse the system.

Keep messages short and sweet; unless it's a crisis, they should run no longer than 30 seconds, Berning says.

7. Monitor outgoing messages if necessary.

The public relations department and the district CTO get e-mail notification when any message goes out and can listen to it if they want, Berning says. "I can go onto Connect-ED on the Web and listen and see a list of all messages that have been sent and click on what I want to listen to," he says. But, he adds, basically it's all about the training and trusting that single point of contact at each campus.

8. Keep passwords secure.

The Carrollton-Farmers district recommends that system users change all passwords, including those used for alert notification messages, every six weeks.

9. Have the system notify parents of absences at random times.

Marion County found that having attendance information sent at the same time every day was asking for trouble. Students quickly figured the timing of the calls. The district arranged for calls to arrive at unpredictable times. "This foils the clever kids who are wanting to get that message erased before Mom and Dad hear it—and know when it's coming and rush home so they can do it," Taylor says.

10. Evaluate use.

The Carrollton-Farmers district keeps track of the type of messages sent, typically on a monthly basis. Connect-ED has a statistical package to do this, Berning says.

Users can choose how to identify the type of message they send. Messages could be categorized, for example, as instructional issues or as attendance issues. The public relations department can look at that and confirm that the message belongs in a particular category—or can come up with additional categories.

"More importantly, we know which campuses are not using the system," Berning says. "Then we're able to go back to those administrators and do more training and answer more questions."

Anecdotal information from principals indicates the messages work and that attendance at functions from science fairs to PTA meetings is up, he says. The district plans to monitor attendance messages for a year to see if student attendance rates improve.

11. Look at possible future uses of the system.

The next level is using the alert notification system for instructional purposes—to give parents an idea about what's going on in the classroom, whether it's the history of World War II or quadratic equations, Berning says.

Sheila Riley is a San Francisco-based freelancer who also writes for EE Times and Investor's Business Daily.