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Archive for Saturday, December 10, 2011

District learns from bomb threat notification delays

In this Dec. 1 file photo, students leave Lawrence Free State High School after the administration and Lawrence Police evacuated the building because of a bomb threat. The district's emergency notification system did not get the word out about the evacuation as quickly as it should have, a failure now being looked at by district officials.

In this Dec. 1 file photo, students leave Lawrence Free State High School after the administration and Lawrence Police evacuated the building because of a bomb threat. The district's emergency notification system did not get the word out about the evacuation as quickly as it should have, a failure now being looked at by district officials.

December 10, 2011

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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.

Comments

Windemere 2 years, 4 months ago

Did I miss something, or has there been no word as to finding the culprit of the bomb threat? Deafening silence.....

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Daniel Speicher 2 years, 4 months ago

As a staff member at Free State who was involved in the evacuation, I can tell you that we all believed the top priority was getting the kids out of the building and as far from the building as possible in the most timely manner possible. There was no possible way to account for each student on the premises as the threat occurred prior to school hours and to allow students to go to their first hour class (and thus keep them in a potentially dangerous situation for that much longer) would be irresponsible. The staff at Free State attempted to move in the most expedient and responsible way. And, the landmark of the day is that students did the responsible thing by following directions without question and clearing from the area as soon as possible.

As far as the district? They didn't really fail either. They used a system that had been tried and true before. However, they had never used it on this scale. There are few people who would have been able to accurately predict the bottleneck in the phone system that day. The failure was in the phone system. And, even there, how could one assess blame? The reality is no one is to blame for the late calls. It is a lesson that was learned in a situation that was, in the end, not dangerous. If there is such a thing as a "good outcome" of such a threat it is that the district, school, students and staff are all better prepared for what needs to be done if a real threat (or even another fake) is assessed.

--Danny Speicher

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ToriFreak13 2 years, 4 months ago

Again some people just like to complain. To the complainers: So you believe someone should take an extra 10 minutes sitting in the building and make sure a message is sent out to you while there is a legitimate bomb threat in place? So your kids deserve to be evacuated but someone has to take one for the team right? Half of you have your home phone # listed anyway and you are at work, or driving around with your cell. Get over it. They got the kids out safely...that is what matters most!

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conservative 2 years, 4 months ago

Good job. All we as families asked was that you review what went wrong and figure out how to not have it happen again in the future. Thanks.

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grammaddy 2 years, 4 months ago

Glad they figured out the problem before a REAL emergency came along.

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password 2 years, 4 months ago

They should have done that in the first place.... duh....

"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."

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