Mass notification and emergency communication (MNEC) technologies play a crucial role in disaster response. Equally as important as the equipment itself is having a plan for deploying that technology and establishing safety protocols. In the event of an emergency, it’s all hands (and all staff members) on deck. AV/IT professionals are key players in disaster response. They maintain critical information systems and keep communication lines open. Technology staff act as first responders, providing triage to A/V and IT systems as needed.
“The technology team’s biggest responsibility is to make sure everything’s working,” says Steven D. Clagg, chief information officer at Aurora Public Schools. “One of things we do on a monthly basis with the technology team is that we test all the gear even if there’s no work order out.”
This monthly test is just one of many safety protocols the Aurora, Colorado school district has in place. The district’s superintendent John L. Barry comes from a military background, having served in the Air Force and having helped lead the independent inquiry of the space shuttle Columbia disaster, he is well versed in emergency response. As a result, school district leaders (including the CIO) undergo extensive incident response training that covers everything from how to recognize a student headed for trouble to what to do in the event of a lockdown. The district also has a detailed incident response plan that includes mass notification messaging, the convening of school leadership and a partnership with local authorities.
“[The plan] goes through several levels so there’s a technology layer, but first and foremost is safety. That safety response plan takes into consideration all kinds of emergencies, not just a dangerous person in the school. The plan is sort of all inclusive,” says Clagg.
When trouble arises, be it a power outage, an impending storm or something more serious, the first step is to classify the incident. Situations are either red, orange or yellow depending on their severity, with red being the highest alert. Blackboard Connect, a mass messaging tool that is tied into the district’s learning management system, is used to send email, text or voice dial alerts to staff, students and parents. The type of incident and where it originated determines who triggers the alert. Internal incidents are handled by the district’s security team. Outbound messaging is handled by the Communications department. The district then convenes its Incident Response Team (IRT).
“Depending on the severity of the incident either the team will meet virtually or the team will meet in person. Red lockdown is our heaviest so that means there’s an intruder in the building and that would require all of us to immediately convene at the emergency operations center,” says Clagg.
The IRT consists of district leaders and representatives from every school department including the public information officer, principals, Transportation Services, IT, Nutrition Services, Aurora police and fire departments, security, etc. Anyone who is responsible for any kind of aid in a crisis situation is involved. Each IRT member has a checklist they need to go through. IT, for example, must make sure all the district’s critical systems are up and running.
“For us, the number one critical system is Infinite Campus or our student information system. On the network side, is our network working? Do we have wireless access in the room or in the emergency site? Next we go through a checkup of services we’re consuming. Email is number one. [Then] access to our cable system to get the media up on our screens right away because sometimes the media has information we don’t,” says Clagg.
Infinite Campus is considered a critical system because it’s where student data like grades, attendance and health information is stored. If there was an incident in a particular classroom, school administrators could use Infinite Classroom to identify students and to locate siblings or family members who may also attend school in the district.
As soon as IRT is convened, Clagg sends an email to the email systems administrator. That person then has to physically check that everything is working as it should be and send back a check-all email. The technology staff is critical to keeping communication lines open. If the network goes down, the district has no access to staff or student information, no email and the 1,600 security cameras district-wide will go offline, essentially rendered useless. The Aurora schools would become isolated from the outside world. IT certainly plays an essential role in emergency response, although not an immediately obvious one for some. In Clagg’s experience, getting IT to embrace that role sometimes takes a little prodding.
“They need to understand that they have to drop what they’re doing and be ready to react to a crisis, and that’s a little hard for our team sometimes because they’re so customer focused,” says Clagg. “We’ve had to work that into our culture, that we’re first responders too.”
Once in the emergency operations center, the IRT has a number of technologies at its disposal. The room has a Promethean whiteboard that can be used to display maps of the school as well as staff or student information. A large screen monitor is used to display Microsoft OneNote where a scribe keeps a running incident log. There are also Web cameras that can be used with Adobe Connect Pro to broadcast live. A Polycom conference phone allows for conference calls between district leaders and local authorities and a geographical information system provides maps of the district and the affected areas. If cell phone service is down, the district has a number of handsets that can be passed out.
Establishing Safety Protocols
In addition to installing MNEC technology, organizations should also create and adhere to basic safety protocols. Locking doors and handing out visitors badges may seem simple, but it can be lifesaving. Referring to the 2008, Virginia Tech shooting, Clagg explains the gunman bypassed locked classrooms even when he could see people inside. That one barrier was enough to deter the shooter. This is one reason the Aurora schools have a locked door policy.
“All exterior doors at all school levels are locked. You cannot get into a building without someone buzzing you in. No employee is allowed to enter another door without first signing in at the front door,” says Clagg. “If I catch any of my staff going in through the side door, that’s part of their performance rating.” All internal classroom doors are locked as well so in the event of a lockdown no one is scrambling to shut and lock the door. Teachers can simply close it and gather students together in the farthest corner of the room.
Training plays a large role in disaster preparedness as well. The district does two annual mass trainings involving the school principals and the IRT. All training is provided and funded by the district whose security director is a former police officer. In addition to lockdown training and incident response, Clagg has also attended sessions on shooter profiles and when to call for an assessment for a student in trouble.
“Here’s our vision: provide environments that are physically and emotionally safe for students, for peer work and for learning,” says Clagg. “Everything, really, is behind that. Everything we do is to make sure that happens.”