By Chuck Olson
A student pulls a knife in a classroom. A child has an epileptic seizure in the hallway. Parents in a custody battle scream at each other in the school office. Police announce there’s an armed suspect in the neighborhood. The National Weather Service declares a tornado warning.
Keeping students, faculty and staff safe means you need to respond to an endless list of threats. Key to this is the ability to communicate quickly, clearly and redundantly: When a crisis happens, you need to know exactly how to communicate with your audience and your audience needs to be confident in the clarity and authenticity of your message.
Approaching School Safety
Although the threat of an active shooter rightfully concerns many parents and school officials, there are a host of more common threats, like those noted above, that affect schools every day. There are no standard protocols when it comes to emergency response or recovery – even terminology can vary by region of the country. As a result, there’s a patchwork of approaches that depend on different factors in a particular district or school.
But no matter which approach is chosen, it’s essential to have rapid, clear and redundant communication in a time of crisis. When a response needs to happen in the blink of an eye, poor communication can cause confusion about what actions to take and whether the messages themselves are authentic. This puts students, faculty and staff at risk.
Let’s take a look at a few key factors to consider when selecting an emergency communications platform and tools for a school.
Perhaps you have a text-messaging system in place for emergencies. But what if a phone battery is dead? Or a teacher’s phone is silenced because students are taking a test? There should be multiple ways to get out the same message during a school emergency, such as an intercom system, texts, or via electronic displays and TVs throughout the school.
In addition to having “back-up” options in the event that a communication channel is down, redundancy reinforces your messages and communicates in different ways to ensure your audiences (who may react differently to visual or audio messages) understand what to do.
In certain scenarios, you may not need to alert the entire school. Perhaps there is a fight in the hallway, but only students on a particular end of the building need to stay in the classroom until the fight is contained. In this case, a school-wide alert is disruptive and unnecessary.
Consider communication platforms that allow messaging by floor, department, or even grade level so you can tailor your messages according to the threat. For example, students in the East Wing of a building may receive a visual or audio message to stay in their classrooms because of a threat, but students in other parts of the building aren’t interrupted with a message that isn’t relevant to them.
Noisy shop areas, gyms and lunchrooms are challenging areas to notify if the only option is an audible alert. In addition, audible alerts that suddenly blare in classrooms with children who have special functional needs or sensitivities can cause undue stress. In these cases, emergency communication tools that also employ a form of visual communication, such as a message on a display screen, can be more helpful.
A visual message on a screen serves as a redundant cue that there is an emergency and helps clarify whether the situation is simply a drill. For children with access and functional needs, a visual notification may be the only way to communicate that there is an emergency and that actions must be taken.
A system only works as well as users know how to leverage it. It’s imperative that staff is comfortable using a technology or tool in a stressful situation. We can become disoriented in an emergency and lose the ability to make complex decisions. This isn’t the time to use a system that someone has only trained with a few times, no matter how intuitive it may seem.
Intercoms and radios are great examples for communicating in an emergency because they are technology with which most staff and faculty are comfortable. A dual-use or multi-use communication solution provides redundancy for intercoms and radios, but many platforms can also be used in day-to-day scenarios such as communicating school news or sending announcements to classrooms.
Multi-use tools give staff a better level of comfort and trust when it comes to using them for emergency response because they are already familiar with the technology. Plus, they may be a more cost-effective investment because they are a tool that’s used every day, rather than only during an emergency.
School Integrates Alerts, Announcements and Synchronized Time
Elkhart Christian Academy of Elkhart, Indiana, uses the American Time EverAlert Emergency Communications Platform. EverAlert is a flexible, multi-functional technology that includes visual and audio emergency alerts, digital daily announcements, and synchronized clock displays while also integrating with school systems such as fire alarms, bell systems, and more.
For instance, alarms triggered by existing emergency systems can trigger corresponding messages on classroom screens; fire, security and weather alerts can be configured with additional critical information such as exit instructions.
EverAlert is integrated with the school’s alarm system. Ryan Pease, tech support at Elkhart, explained, “When we practice our fire, tornado or lockdown drills and the alarm is activated, EverAlert’s corresponding visual display helps clearly identify the alarm type so teachers and students can react more quickly. We also like that more than one user can send an alert and that certain users get instant notifications when something happens.”
Elkhart teachers use the communications platform for daily classroom messaging, such as test reminders and weekly Bible verses. It’s also a way for administration to communicate with the classroom in an unobtrusive way.
When weather conditions dictated that students stay indoors for recess, a message was simply sent to the EverAlert displays in each classroom rather than using a disruptive announcement over the intercom.
Preparing for Any Emergency
Although you can’t always predict an emergency, you can prepare to communicate critical details about how staff and students need to react.
Whichever communications tools or platforms you choose, make sure they are flexible to changing emergency approaches, support redundant communications, offer flexible options for visual and audio alerts, and have multiple uses that reinforce familiarity and a good return on your investment.
Chuck Olson is the vice president of sales and service of American Time, www.amerian-time.com. With over 2 million clocks sold worldwide and thousands of products and time systems to choose from, you can trust American Time to have your timekeeping solution.