Surviving Disaster

from Technology & Learning

Schools play a unique role in communities when disaster strikes. They serve as shelter for evacuees and first responders. They are a trusted source of information. Once danger has passed, the district, as employer and community center, often serves as a foundation for recovery.

Technology plays a key role in a school district's ability to respond quickly and efficiently when disaster strikes. We spoke to several school district leaders about how they put their plans into practice and what they learned.


High winds and drought conditions whipped up a firestorm in October 2007 that threatened millions of people in San Diego County. When emergency services announced evacuations, Robert Gravina, chief technology officer at Poway Unified School District, located in the northern part of the county, put his emergency plan into action.

Lesson #1:
Clean contact data is essential for communications.

"Many parents did not get the Reverse 911 from the county, but got the call from our system," he says. "It was invaluable to us." According to Gravina, district programmers and his database team had cleaned and organized contact information for 33,000 students and 4,800 employees. Using Connect-ED, the district sent more than 270,000 voice mail messages to thousands of community members, getting only 15 wrong phone numbers.

In addition to broadcasting a general message to everyone, role-based grouping enabled Gravina to send specialized messages. He could tell teachers not to return to school, while notifying bus drivers that they were needed to transport evacuees from hospitals and convalescent homes.

Lesson #2:
The network infrastructure must be ready for peak traffic.

Reliable networks enable Web sites to stay live, providing up-to-date information and reassurance to community members. On Sunday, October 21, the first day of the fire, district Web traffic spiked at 15,500 hits. "When everyone hit the page," says Gravina, "our servers never went down." In addition to the Connect-ED delivery, the district posted the text of each message and update online.

Even though students and teachers were evacuated and school was not in session for the week, they continued to use network resources for learning. On Monday, the district's Blackboard learning platform had 41,000 hits as students and teachers logged in to their courses.

Lesson #3:
Backups are not enough to rebuild critical applications.

By Monday, October 29, schools reopened and Gravina realized where his current disaster plan fell short. "You think you're prepared, but there is always something you forgot," Gravina says. "We had the [backup] tapes, but we didn't have any servers anywhere else." If the district office had been damaged or had become unavailable, they would have spent significant time and resources rebuilding systems. "We're looking at other districts in other states to collocate," he says.

Poway Close Up
Poway High School became a staging area for firefighters from throughout the Western states. Principal Scott Fisher and his staff provided hot meals, showers, and access to the Internet for firefighters, who battled the fire in 12-hour shifts for almost a week.


In September 2005, Hurricane Rita tore through the Lake Charles area of Louisiana, wreaking havoc on Calcasieu Parish Schools and shutting down the community for 34 days. As the storm gathered strength offshore, Sheryl Abshire, director of technology at the district, began "working the plan" to ensure business continuity for the 59 schools and 34,000 students.

Lesson #4:
Moveable systems get you back online when facilities are destroyed.

All of the district's business systems and learning systems run on the network, and network connectivity does not have to be location-specific. "We had built an infrastructure so that we could unrack every server and transport them out," says Abshire. In less than five hours, the technology team had critical servers on the road north to the district's ISP, where previously negotiated agreements enabled them to set up and come back online. "We were very strategic in building relationships, cutting through red tape to not worry about bureaucracy."

Lesson #5:
The essential operations of the district must continue.

Like many school districts, Calcasieu Parish is the area's largest employer, with 6,000 employees. Abshire knew that, despite the devastation that had occurred, she had to make her payroll to prevent a financial crisis. With the district payroll servers in the back of her car, Abshire talked her way past the National Guard, despite a lack of emergency credentials. When payday arrived, Calcasieu Parish payroll was processed despite flooded buildings, evacuated staff, and no electricity or fuel in the region.

Lesson #6:
Timely and trusted communications provide a sense of security.

District Web sites became a communication hub for students, employees, and their families. "We were the only thing online for the whole region," Abshire says. "We became the communication center." The district had planned for power outages and gasoline shortages by installing natural gas generators with underground lines.

Without telephone lines or cell phone coverage, displaced residents logged in from libraries, coffee shops, and schools. "We had teachers who did not teach online, but had Blackboard sites that became their teaching portals," Abshire says. "We had education going on when schools were closed. I had principals call me and thank me for making them go to classes. They didn't realize how important it was to be able to e-mail all of their students and staff."

Lesson #7: Emergency credentials are needed by critical personnel.

Following the events of 2005, the district has developed stronger relationships with city and county emergency services. Designated disaster recovery staff have formal identification for themselves and for their cars to allow them to stay or to return to a restricted area. Emergency recovery companies have been contracted to secure buildings and roofs, and provide food and temporary housing to the critical team. In addition, the district has mandated direct deposit for all employees and purchased Connect-ED for emergency notification.

"In an emergency, people do not operate at maximum capacity," says Abshire, now a member of the superintendent's cabinet. "People have families and become distracted. If you have procedures and plans in place, you can work the plan. There is less room for mistakes and disasters within the disaster."

Localized Disasters

Tom Petry, director of technology for Collier County School District in the southwest corner of Florida, is prepared for a hurricane, but is more concerned about localized disasters such as a building fire or lockdown. He describes the priority of IT in any disaster as making sure that communications, systems, and services are up and running for the people who need to use them.

Lesson #8:
Two data centers are better than one.

Collier County School District maintains two strands of dark fiber between Naples, where the district is located, and Miami, where the district has an Internet provisioning and disaster recovery center. "We have a hot site," Petry says. "It is ready, operating in parallel." With data in a safe place and network availability, the district can provide critical communications to employees at a new location or to schools serving as hurricane shelters.

"All of our users, no matter where they are set up, would have access to the Internet," Petry says. To Petry, communications are the top priority with district VoIP and Web servers. Next, he looks at tier one applications such as ERP and financial services to be able to make the payroll. Finally, the district prioritizes student information systems, grade books, and instructional applications for continuous learning.


Emergency preparedness is not just for natural disasters. Planning, training, and clear communications are the tools for responding to threats within the school building as well.

Lesson #9:
Students are texting, why aren't you?

Lake Pend Oreille School District superintendent Dick Cvitanich realized that his district needed an emergency text messaging system after the high school went into lockdown during a bomb threat. The school district lies along Lake Ponderay in Sandpoint, Idaho, and stretches across 50 miles of land with many students living up in the mountains.

When the bomb threat occurred, students were moved to an alternate site until school officials determined whether or not the threat was real. Before they decided to release students, parents began arriving at the location in a panic. Students had texted parents with incomplete information, complicating the district emergency plan.

The district now uses First Alert System Text. Parents and students add the service to their mobile phone subscription and receive immediate and reliable communications from the district. The district expects to use the system primarily to announce school closures in the case of bad weather.

Lesson #10:
People are the key to crisis management.

What do hurricanes, wildfires, and students who go on a rampage at school have in common? They start small. PublicSchoolWORKS, a health and safety management company, has developed a reporting system to help prevent violence through early detection. An anonymous online and telephone reporting system combined with a behavior management system helps districts better track individual instances of violence and identify growing trends.

When an incident enters the system, reported anonymously or by the school nurse or other staff member, alerts are sent to those responsible for responding. They continue to receive alerts until they complete their step in the reporting process. Manatee Schools in Florida reported a 97 percent completion rate for incidents since implementing the system. In addition to responding to individual events, the system aggregates data in chart and graph style reporting so that principals can address a growing problem before it becomes a perfect storm.

A district emergency may be resolved in an hour or it may close down schools for an extended period of time. Proper planning, training, and technology systems help districts respond quickly with broadcast communications and emergency services to maintain business continuity. But perhaps the most important role for schools in a community disaster is to provide a secure, reliable place for learning, whether in a safe building or a virtual community.

Karen Greenwood Henke is founder of Nimble Press.

A Sampling of Emergency Resources

ACUTA (Association for Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education) represents some 700 colleges and universities. Emergency communications and preparing for all sorts of disasters and contingencies is high on its agenda. is an online course management system that allows schools and districts to keep up and running and to keep connected under emergency conditions.

CDW-G offers a range of solutions from vendors such as Symantec, BrightStor, Data Domain, and CA ARCserve designed specifically for disaster recovery.

School and district officials use the Connect-ED service to send voice, text, and e-mail messages to home phones, cell phones, BlackBerries, and other text and e-mail devices, as well as devices for the hearing impaired. From October 21–28, 2007, Southern California schools and universities sent over 6 million messages to students, parents, and staff via Connect-ED.

The Consortium for School Networking provides a variety of resources for district leaders on the topic of emergency preparedness, including a PowerPoint "Crisis Peparedness Leadership for IT Disaster Recovery."

FAST (First Alert System Text) is a subscription service for cell phone users to receive emergency messages. It uses SMPP (short message peer-to-peer) protocol to provide rapid and assured delivery of text messages. Schools can send emergency notification to both subscribers and emergency personnel.

The Hurricane Education Leadership Program Team focuses on rebuilding and renewing learning environments for schools and educators that were impacted by hurricanes and other natural disasters. The HELP team offers displaced students the ability to continue their education.

Kognito has developed a simulation course that engages learners in a realistic narrative of a six-day hurricane event, allowing them to assume the role of a hurricane shelter staff and practice, within a riskfree environment. Tasks include dealing with virtual evacuees, managing different areas of a shelter, and handling common problems that are likely to arise.

LenSec, an enterprise-wide IP-based video surveillance company, protects all school and administration buildings with a network of cameras tied into a single Web page for easy control. Police, fire, and emergency response services can access cameras in real time for a collaborative response.

PublicSchoolWORKS offers a range of Web-based software tools for training and reporting incidents. By aggregating and tracking incident data reported online and by phone, district administrators have a better view of potential problems developing in the district.

RAD Data Communications is a networking company with a point-to-point radio emergency communications and disaster recovery tool. This point-to-point radio can link communications networks when the lines have been cut or are otherwise unavailable, delivering up to 18 megabits per second of bandwidth at distances of up to 50 miles.

TeleParent is an online communication service designed to deliver vital student information immediately to parents. Messages can be automatically communicated to parents in 22 languages. Features include emergency and attendance calling services, student-to teacher messages, and a community outreach service.

TVTN enables school administrators to send up-to-the-minute emergency school notifications, which are broadcast on the local cable channel and township Web site. TVTN recently expanded this service to include text message and e-mail notifications to parents and residents who sign up for the service. TVTN serves two dozen school districts and more than 200 municipalities across 11 states.