Turns out that when an emergency situation actually is an emergency situation, the Lawrence school district should use its emergency notification system to get the word out to families affected by the emergency itself.
That’s the lesson taken from the district’s inability to directly notify families quickly last week following the evacuation of Free State High School — an evacuation spurred by the discovery of a written bomb threat found taped to the front door of the school, 4700 Overland Drive.
The evacuation order came just before 8 a.m. Dec. 1, a few minutes before the school’s earliest classes were to begin, but some families didn’t receive a recorded phone alert from Principal Ed West until 90 minutes later. For others, the wait was even longer.
Causing the delay: The initial recorded message went out on a system that uses local phone lines, just as the district’s local lines had become jammed.
The number of calls entering and leaving Free State and district headquarters immediately following the threat and evacuation was seven times higher than normal, officials said.
So the district learned a valuable lesson: Next time there’s a bomb threat or any other type of emergency, authorities will switch to a different notification system — the one already used to send out school-cancellation calls on snow days — to let families know what’s going on.
That system isn’t reliant on the district’s phone lines, and therefore isn’t subject to lengthy delays.
“With last week’s experience, we have now learned that when we need immediate notification of a large group, we need to use the externally hosted system,” said Julie Boyle, the district’s communications director. “That is the lesson we have learned. We will now use that, going forward.”
The local system — the one that relies on local phone lines — is one consistently used by principals to send out school bulletins and reminders about events, parent-teacher conferences, upcoming assessment tests and other matters, Boyle said. Principals have never called upon the external system to send out such messages.
Both systems deliver messages through a hired contractor: School Messenger, a service provided by Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Reliance Communications. The district has been using the service for at least the past three years.
Boyle emphasizes that both of Phone Messenger’s services work just fine. The problem was that the district hadn’t previously experienced an emergency like the bomb threat, at least not when SchoolMessenger was in use.
Phone Messenger’s two-tiered delivery system carries a two-level cost structure. Delivering messages on local lines is covered under the terms of the overall contract, Boyle said, and therefore does not cost extra. The district bought the service in 2007 for $33,000, and annual renewals are $6,000.
Using the external system — the one used for school cancellations during inclement weather — costs an extra 17 cents per call, Boyle said. Such additional expenses are capped at $25,800 per year.
Cost was not an issue considered when notifications were being sent out regarding the bomb threat, Boyle said. In fact, a second message from West went out on the external system later in the morning, when it was discovered that the initial messages weren’t going out in a timely manner.
Officials simply didn’t know that using the local lines could lead to delays, Boyle said.
They do now.
“It’s just the matter of learning the capabilities of the system,” Boyle said.