Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

Not an Option: Best Practices for Managing Crisis

Managing Crisis in School

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Because emergencies can and do happen anywhere, it’s imperative that schools be equipped with mass notification and communication systems. “They’re necessary to keep others safe and lower anxiety — and because we are responsible to our clientele,” says Edward Dorff, executive director for Green Bay-based Wisconsin School Safety Coordinators Association (WSSCA) in Green Bay, a non-profit association of professionals dedicated to the task of improving security, safety and health in Wisconsin schools. “Informing people and keeping them informed in any type of emergency is a legal consideration, as well as a moral and ethical consideration.

“Also, we know that people are receiving information; we want to make sure it’s the correct information,” Dorff continues. With mass notification and communication systems, it’s possible to ensure that people receive correct information, and managing emergencies becomes less challenging.

“For example,” says Dorff, “one time, by order of the police department, we put four of our schools on a Level 2 lockdown, which is where something’s happening in the community and we don’t want people leaving the building and we want to be very careful of who’s coming in the building. The phones in the schools started ringing off the hook because students were texting their parents that they were on lockdown.

“What I did was not protocol,” Dorff continues, “but it worked and was the best I could manage. I sent an email to the teachers explaining what was happening and indicating that, in one minute, I would announce this to the students. Then I went on the PA system and told the teachers to check their email. A minute later I went on the PA system, explained the situation to the students and told them to text their parents. It brought everyone’s anxiety level down and, in doing so, built a better level of trust. If we’d had a system at the time, I could have simply communicated directly with parents.”

Now that we know that mass notification and communication systems are not optional, here is a discussion of best practices for developing, maintaining and managing a system.

Best Practices for Developing a System

“The development process always starts with an assessment; that’s nothing new in education,” says Mike Munger, Southwest Idaho school safety analyst for the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security, which falls under the Division of Building Safety and which is mandated by the state to support Idaho public schools in the creation of safe learning environments in the midst of an evolving threat environment. “In this case, a needs assessment is a critical component for determining how the system will work. It drives the deployment from the very beginning stages.” Here are additional development best practices.

  • “Write a policy that is explicit in the need and responsibility to communicate with families in the community about any crisis you have,” says Dorff, who acknowledges that not all Idaho school districts have mass notification and communication systems.
  • Determine to whom you want to communicate in what situation: students, parents and students, or emergency responders? Part of this consideration includes thinking realistically about how the system will work in real life — in both day-to-day situations and emergency situations.
  • Consider ESL and impaired message recipients. Many districts have students and parents for whom English is not their first language. A plan must be made for communicating through diverse languages. Also consider the deaf/hearing impaired and blind/vision impaired. How will you communicate with them? “Once that is resolved,” says Tom Kelley, school safety specialist for the Texas School Safety Center (TxSSC) in San Marcos, “test, exercise and drill using to ensure that what you’re putting in place actually keeps students safe rather than simply giving the impression that it will.” TxSSC is a state-mandated, university-level research center at Texas State University that serves as a clearinghouse for the dissemination of safety and security information through research, training, and technical assistance for K-12 schools and junior colleges throughout the state.
  • Choose the right tool for the message. Understand that, in some cases, a mass notification and communication system is not the best way to communicate, and that there are more effective, faster and objective ways to reach your audience. “It’s not an end-all, be-all for emergency communications,” says Munger, “it’s one of many options. It’s very effective for what it does. So it’s important to understand what it does well and how it your needs in terms of who receives the information.

“For example,” Munger continues, “let’s say a need has arisen requiring parents to pick up their students earlier than they normally would, such as a need to evacuate the building. In this case, a mass notification and communication system works well to get the message out quickly. Then, explaining what happened that caused the need to evacuate and what you’re going to do in the future is best done via the school website, where you can offer an in-depth explanation.”

Similarly, you will use different modalities to communicate with bus drivers, emergency first responders and the media. The takeaway? A mass notification and communication system allows you to burst out large amounts of fairly brief information, but it’s neither the best way nor the only way to manage an issue.

  • Build in redundancy. Your communication plan must be built with redundancy because there are so many factors to consider when planning for an emergency. “Take Texas, for example,” says Kelley. “There are rural areas with miles and miles of Mexican border. These areas may have sketchy cell phone coverage.” Additionally, sometimes things don’t work as they’re intended. For example, in an emergency, cell phone towers may be overwhelmed and calls may not get through.
  • Involve the community and experts. “I recommend taking a community approach of meeting with local law enforcement, hospitals, the health department and parents to understand the scope of who needs notified under what circumstances and then looking at what systems would work best,” says Kelley. “Work with an expert, because it takes an expert to narrow what system/product would work best when there are so many options available.”
  • Choose a system that can be used for both day-to-day and emergency communications. “If a system is designed well in the first place,” says Munger, “it lends itself to ongoing operational uses. What’s troublesome is buying a one-off solution with the intention of using it only for emergencies. What happens is that people who are trained to use the system move to new positions, and the number of trained staff and use falls off. Also, people forget their log on information because they don’t log on often. So the more you use it in day-to-day, non-emergency communications, the better you work out the kinks.”
  • Inquire about access. Ask if the system you’re considering purchasing can be accessed from cell phones and home computers in addition to desktop computers. “More and more, we’re finding that being able to access via multiple technologies is helpful,” says Dorff. “If the superintendent is out of town and needs to issue a snow emergency announcement, it’s ideal if it can be done from the superintendent’s current location and available technology, no matter how remote.”
  • Inquire about compatibility. “Administrators must ensure that the system they choose is fully compatible with their student information systems and related technology,” says Ken Trump, MPA, president of Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, a school safety consulting firm. “They need to be able to have seamless input and use capabilities. School leaders often aim for voice and text messaging capabilities.”

Best Practices for Maintaining a System

Once your system is developed, you move to the maintenance step.

  • Training is not to be overlooked. “The facilities and IT staff who are charged with installing, servicing and maintaining the equipment need solid training,” says Dorff. “When the vendors install the equipment, we must make sure the staff charged with maintaining it is getting up-to-date training on it.”

Also put in place training for the people charged with the communication responsibility, including building principals and central office administrators. That training should include an understanding of the incident command system and crisis communication protocols within it. “When we talk about the need to do mass communication,” says Dorff, “it may be as innocuous as tonight’s volleyball or parent teacher conferences, which are helpful. But it may be about more serious things that must be controlled and monitored. That’s where the training about the line of communication comes into play.”

  • Train broadly. “All the technology in the world isn’t worth a darn if people don’t know how to use it,” says Dorff. “Consider training clerical and facilities staff.” He sites an example where there were cameras inside a school and footage needed to be viewed, but no one in the building at the time knew how to operate the system.
  • Testing must be conducted regularly. “There must be an expectation that the equipment is being used and tested regularly,” says Dorff. “If you have 42 sites, then 42 principals must have the ability to access the school messenger system, and they should be using it on a regular basis so that, if there’s a glitch, it can be repaired immediately.”

Best Practices for Managing a System

“When you move from low-frequency, high-impact usage to ongoing, everyday usage, the easier the management component becomes,” says Munger. That said, here’s what else you must know about system management.

  • Write a mass notification and communication system policy in your overall communication plan. “Managing a system always involves a delicate marriage between what the technology can do and how we want to use it,” says Munger. “So having a firm policy on who can use the system and in what circumstances, if and when pre-staged messages are used, and training, all lend a hand in the message component.”
  • Know who’s in charge. There must one person in charge of the system, and that person must know it’s his or her responsibility. “I like it when that person is not reactive but proactive,” says Dorff, “checking in with users on a regular basis to answer questions and letting them know that support is available.”

Final Considerations

While mass notification and communication systems get information out quickly, there is much to consider in both building an emergency communications plan and making a purchasing decision. Trump sums it up with four points. First, they’re just one tool in a school’s overall emergency preparedness plan. “Second, they’re only as good as the data put into them,” he says. “Third, their effectiveness depends upon effective use of the system by school leaders, who are juggling many priorities during a true school crisis. And fourth, like any technology, they are only as good as the people and practices behind the equipment or service. Staff training, drills and testing of technological support systems are all important to overall school emergency planning.”

Finally, here’s an example of what happens without mass notification and communication systems. “Last spring there was a tragedy in one of our smaller school districts,” says Dorff. “A recent graduate came to prom and started shooting. In talking with the folks there, I discovered that one school administrator learned about it because someone from another town called him when that person’s daughter saw it on Facebook. Communication went out by social media before he learned about it from police. That’s a horrible way to learn about a tragic event in your district.” While this is not a worst-case scenario of what can happen without a system, it doesn’t take a great stretch to imagine what could happen in a worst-case scenario.

“We need to think not of cost but of value,” says Dorff. “Having used mass notification and communication systems and seen their efficacy, I know that they are of very, very high value.”

WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD YOU ASK VENDORS?

When you’re ready to begin shopping for a mass notification and communication system, there are a number of questions you’ll want to ask vendors. The first, of course, is cost. But there are plenty more. “I want to know about ease of use and access,” says Edward Dorff, executive director for Green Bay-based Wisconsin School Safety Coordinators Association (WSSCA) in Green Bay. “In other words, how easy is it to send messages? Also, I want to know what platforms the system supports: voice mail, text, email? What are its capabilities? How quickly I can get it on board? Does it interface with our current student management system?” Asking these questions will help you find the system that’s best for your school or district.

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

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