Emergency Communication Technologies for Schools and Campuses

September is designated as National Preparedness Month by Ready, a national public service campaign dedicated to education and empowerment so Americans can respond to and mitigate emergencies, natural and man-made.

According to Ready.Gov, “National Preparedness Month (NPM), recognized each September, provides an opportunity to remind us that we all must prepare ourselves and our families now and throughout the year.” Their tagline for 2018 reads: "Disasters Happen. Prepare Now. Learn How."

Although preparedness is an important topic that should transcend a once-a-year campaign reminder, September is an opportune time to focus on the need for preparedness in our schools and those impacted by emergency-related events. 

In this article, we will discuss available communication technologies that help decrease emergency response times and increase the effectiveness and efficiency of communications between school officials and those impacted by a disaster, whether it's a school shooting or natural event. 

Communication Technology is Essential

When we think of preparedness as it relates to K12 education and college campuses, thoughts of school shootings typically come to mind; however, preparedness is more than addressing an active shooter scenario. What about natural disasters, such as flooding, wildfires or tornadoes? These are disasters that can destroy equipment, power lines, windows and building structures, and cause harm to the people caught in its path.

What technologies are available for you to use during these scenarios, and how do you use them? Understanding the options available to you in the marketplace can help your school be well-prepared for these disastrous events.

Let’s start with E911

E911 stands for Enhanced 911 service. We all know what 911 is; you dial 911 and you’re connected to a Public Safety Answering Point. The person who answers your call will gather information from you and send out the proper emergency response team to your location. Because the phone service for your home or office building is associated with a service address, this information can be automatically sent to the response team.

Unfortunately, with the use of cell phones and VoIP, which both either use Wi-Fi, Cellular or Ethernet, the assumption that the billing address is also the current geographic location of the caller at the time of the call is problematic. Enhanced 911 services, however, help resolve this problem. E911 allows additional information to be associated with the phone number from where the call is placed. It also allows a user, such as those who work out of multiple offices, to update their location as needed and not rely on the account billing address. 

Make sure you discuss your options with your phone service provider, as some of these features with E911 vary depending on the type of service or service provider you have, i.e. analog, PRI or SIP. Here’s a quick explanation for each of the three types of phone service:

  • Analog telephone lines have a physical connection, such as a copper wire to the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) per line.This is also called Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS).There can be only one phone number associated with each line.
  • PRIs, on the other hand, allow 23 voice channels per connection between your PBX (on-site phone system) and the PSTN. PRI stands for Primary Rate Interface. PRis are commonly used by many businesses.
  • Lastly, SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) is the type of phone service you get via the internet, except there are “protocols” in the signaling transport of digital voice packets that enable a more secure connection.
  • Not all providers offer all of the above types of phone service. For example, there are SIP trunk providers that only offer SIP phone service.

With E911, a school has the potential to more accurately associate each phone number with a specific building on the grounds, as well as floor number and room number. This allows emergency response teams to get to the caller faster and with greater destination accuracy.

Lovejoy Independent School District needed to increase student and staff safety in times of crisis. Learn how they pulled it off here. >

Emergency Notification Systems

Emergency notification systems are available in a variety of technologies, such as paging systems, real-time communication alerts and signage. 

Paging system messages/announcements can be automated, pre-recorded and ready for use or utilized in real-time. Whether paging a teacher at their desk or making a school-wide announcement, the right paging system should work with phones, speakers or traditional PA systems. Syn-apps is a notification solution that integrates with Mitel’s phone systems.

Whether analog, PRI or SIP, paging can become an integral part of your emergency notification system. In an emergency, you don’t want to waste time with recording messages or figuring out system configurations. Prepare, plan and be ready.

Real-time Alerts Beyond Texting
Another important communications technology tool used for emergencies are real-time alerts.  You may already be sending real-time alerts, but never thought of this form of communication as useful beyond an occasional notification for delayed school openings or early closures due to inclement weather.

However, these alerts can be also used for desktop notifications to teachers and other staff. Real-time alerts can be used to make phone calls to connected users, and they can even be used in conjunction with beacons or digital signage for visual notifications. 

Integrating Advanced IVRs and Call Routing with Your Phone System
Having an emergency notification system is one aspect of preparedness, but having one that integrates with your phone and communications solution is just as important. The bottom line is that you don’t have time to think about the best way to deliver a message to students or personnel when time is of the essence. You want a system that knows how and when to send what message to whom.

You can take advantage of advanced IVR (interactive voice response) solutions with your Mitel system in these situations. For those using Mitel phone systems, you can utilize their CPaaS application. Use specific phone numbers or prompts to route calls based on caller inquiry and update recorded messages quickly with pertinent information to alleviate your staff from answering redundant questions, so they can efficiently deal with the situation at hand. 

Conference Bridges Dedicated to Emergencies
While most conference bridges are used for non-emergency meetings between staff members or outside parties, specific bridges can be used during emergency situations for immediate conferencing for district officials. This makes it quick and easy for everyone to join and discuss situational updates and challenges.

Such conferencing is accessible from any phone; however, using mobile apps or desktop applications allows users to quickly and easily join, resulting in faster response and communications.

Which Types of Emergencies are You Prepared For?

Addressing the various communication technologies available for use in an emergency is important, but it’s also important to review which types of emergencies you're prepared for. 

Delays, closures and early dismissals can be the result of icy roads in the winter, flooding and tornadoes in the spring, or even hurricanes in the fall. Other less common emergencies could be due to hazardous conditions, such as broken air conditioning systems in the summer, no heat in the winter, chemical spills or smoke.

The most extreme are active-shooter emergencies. Statistically, the odds of this happening in your own school are slim, but we still hear about them in headline news frequently enough that they do make staff and students feel threatened. This type of emergency is different than most natural disasters because active-shooter events take us by surprise  no warnings and no notifications.

Assess (or reassess) the type of emergencies your school should prepare for, as well as the emergency processes that should be implemented or reviewed.

Benefits of Emergency Communications Technology
We stress the use of the word "communication" because that’s what emergency technology is all about. However, being able to use technology to effectively and efficiently communicate with those impacted by an emergency requires research, planning and proper implementation and training. When you have technology that works for your school, you understand the value it provides cannot be measured with numbers or dollar signs.  

Regardless of the type of emergency, they all share the same denominator: the need to communicate quickly and efficiently to deliver important messages and updates to parents, students, teachers, staff and district officials. Having a well-defined plan and utilizing the proper communication technology to execute the plan are critical when dealing with emergency preparedness. Get with your Mitel partner and start discussing your options today.

If you don’t have an effective emergency preparedness plan, start now.  Remember Ready.Gov’s slogan: Disasters Happen. Prepare Now. Learn How.

Carleton University was searching for powerful mass notification technology to keep campus secure. Check out what they found. >

Converged Technology Professionals

Converged Technology Professionals

Converged Technology Professionals is a technology-based consulting firm specializing in unified communications and IT networking. They are a Mitel Platinum Partner with offices in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan. They provide value-added consultative expertise and support for businesses looking to solve challenging problems and organizational goals by improving workplace efficiency and productivity using advanced communications technology for data, voice and mobile network applications.  To learn more about CT-Pros, visit their website at www.voipswami.com.

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