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Saturday, Dec 22 2012 09:00 PM

Kern schools use call systems for emergencies, information

BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

After the awful shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the school informed parents what had happened through automated mass phone calls, emails and text messages.

Sent to every family with contact information on file at the Newtown, Conn., school, the messages told parents to meet at a firehouse across the street on the day of the incident, and kept coming in succeeding days as the Newtown Public School District issued updates about grief counseling, canceled classes and other critical information.

Since then, SchoolMessenger, the vendor Sandy Hook and hundreds of other schools across the nation use to distribute messages both routine and urgent, has seen an uptick in new inquiries about purchasing the system.

Vice president of marketing Nate Brogan said he's horrified by the reason for the boost, but is grateful the system was available during a crisis.

"Obviously the backdrop couldn't be more tragic, but in terms of system performance, it worked exactly as it was designed," he said.

Neither the California Department of Education nor the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office tracks how many districts have mass messaging systems, but an informal survey of Kern County schools found most everyone contacted has that capability.

Bakersfield City School District, Lamont School District, McFarland Unified School District, Rosedale Union School District and Sierra Sands Unified School District are all SchoolMessenger clients.

The Kern High School District and many others in the region use one of the myriad other vendors offering similar services.

Fortunately, usually messages sent are about routine matters such as back-to-school night, weather-related delays or attendance problems, local school administrators said.

Bakersfield College used its BC Alert system in 2010 to let students know that parking lots would be closed during the installation of solar panels; and again last fall during the multi-state Great Shakeout earthquake drill.

"There are good points and bad points with these systems," said BC spokeswoman Amber Chiang.

With texting, you don't catch everyone because not every student owns a mobile phone, she said. Emails pose the same problem for people who don't have Internet access; and even tech-savvy computer owners may not monitor their email every minute.

Robocalls to landlines can take up to 45 minutes to reach all of BC's students because of the size of the college, which has about 16,700 students, Chiang said.

"Obviously if you were warning teachers in an active shooting situation like Sandy Hook, that wouldn't be fast enough," she said.

Sometimes, old-fashioned technology is more effective.

"Every school has an intercom system, and it's fairly fool-proof," said Stephanie Papas, school health education consultant for the state Education Department.

It's important, though, to make sure staff are properly trained to understand what they're hearing and how to respond. Papas recalled being at a school once when it was announced that there was a "bear in the woods." She had no idea that was code for an intruder on campus.

More sophisticated technology has its place, however. Locally, there have been instances when automated call systems proved useful during an emergency.

Last month, classes in Lamont were canceled during an off-campus manhunt in which a suspect repeatedly shot at sheriff's deputies. The district didn't want to risk children getting caught in any crossfire while walking to school.

Also last month, more than 1,800 North High School students in Bakersfield were evacuated in the middle of lunch after a device officials feared was a pipe bomb was found in a bathroom.

Parents were told to pick up their children at a football field before the device was found to be harmless.

The speed with which robocalls go out depends on the number of calls to be placed and the local infrastructure of telephone lines, cell towers and the like.

When too many calls go out simultaneously in the same geographic area, the caller may get an "all circuits are busy" message.

That was what a lot of callers heard immediately after Hurricane Sandy when they tried to place calls to and from the East Coast.

The Panama-Buena Vista Union School District says it can blanket its southwest Bakersfield district -- which serves roughly 17,000 students -- in less than 20 minutes.

It just launched its In-Touch call out system last year. At the time, it wasn't thinking so much about emergencies as increasing parental involvement.

"It's just good to have the ability to reach parents if you need to," said Assistant Superintendent of Education Gerrie Kincaid.

But the best of intentions have their limits, she added. Some parents hang up after they realize there's a robocall on the line. The system keeps track of that, and the district has the option of resending the automated message or having a live human being follow up with a personal call.

For districts that don't mass message, the issue often is price.

The technology isn't cheap. BC pays $50,000 a year for its message system. SchoolMessenger services range from $1 to $3 per student per year.

SchoolMessenger's Brogan said schools can recoup some of that cost, however, by reducing the number of postal mailings they have to pay for.

Also, because school funding is based in part on average daily attendance, sending mass messages to parents of chronically truant children can pay off in the long run if those children start showing up to class, he said.

The McKittrick Elementary School District, which has only one K-8 school, said its enrollment is so small that it can often accomplish the same goals by calling manually.

"We have a lot of low-income families who don't have mobile phones or email, and often there are multiple families in one household, so one call reaches several at the same time," said Maintenance, Operations and Transportation Director Jon Rubadeau.

Chiang, at BC, said even with their limitations, automated message systems are generally a good investment.

"It's one of those things that you don't want to wish you had when you needed it," she said.

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