Advanced Integration Technologies Help Schools Communicate in a Crisis

By Jeff Bergeson

Just as school safety and emergency best practices are evolving, so too is the technology used to help disseminate safety and emergency information. The latest in integrated emergency communication platforms can help schools communicate more quickly and clearly when there is a threat.

Integration Is Key

The latest emergency communication platforms can be integrated with key school systems — fire, lockdown, etc. — for a truly comprehensive communication system.

The most reliable platforms, normally hosted by a vendor in the cloud, will connect through electrical wiring to monitor the normally open electrical contacts of emergency systems. Integrators are physically wired to fire panels, lockdown switches or any electrical normally open switch for reliability and a fast response. This provides direct physical access to alarm switch status; integrators convert a change in a switch’s physical status (e.g., a fire alarm is pulled) into Internet messages that cause software to trigger appropriate alarm screens on displays throughout the building or campus. For example, when a fire alarm is pulled in Building A, a specific evacuation message is deployed to that building. Voice instructions or automatic notifications to authorities increase the effectiveness.

The latest emergency communication platforms can be integrated with key school systems for a truly comprehensive communication system.
Photo Credit: American Time

Initial emergency notifications are delivered as either all-call or zoned messages. Severe weather alerts, usually provided by National Weather Service data feeds (rather than alarm switches), are initially deployed as all-call messages. The entire school receives the same message — for instance, “Tornado warning, take shelter.” Notification systems that can deploy follow-up alert messages with more detail to specific audiences are more effective than those that cannot.

For all-call fire or lockdown emergency notifications, a single switch is monitored by one input on one integrator. When the switch’s status changes, a single message is created and initial alerts are deployed. Again, follow-up alerts can contain more detailed information or be deployed to selected display units.

For zoned configuration, multiple integrators are wired to monitor a single switch. When the switch’s status changes, the platform triggers different messages for the initial response. Integrators can be assigned to groups of displays — those in fifth grade classrooms only, for example — and messages can be tailored for particular groups when the alerts are triggered by the same alarm.

Customizing messages based on location, grade or some other grouping is applicable in nearly any emergency situation, from severe weather to active shooter. For instance, rather than one message for everyone that reads, “Evacuate building immediately,” the initial emergency message in one part of a building may read, “Exit immediately through door A,” while another part of a building may see “Exit immediately via stairwell.” Concurrently, email or text notifications are sent to authorities.

Integration in Action

Northlake Christian School in Covington, La., was in the process of constructing a new middle school and searching for a clock and bell system to serve the new additions. Northlake ultimately chose American Time’s EverAlert Emergency Notification System, which included a clock display that integrated with other school systems (such as the fire alarm system), delivered daily announcements and served as one comprehensive system for emergency communications. Alarms triggered by existing emergency systems are instantly displayed in all classrooms, and e-mail and/or text message notifications are sent to authorized users on or off campus. In addition, fire, security and weather alerts can be configured with additional critical information such as exit instructions; weather alerts issued by the National Weather Service are configured by county.

“We wanted to make the investment early because it really resolved our problems of integrating a time panel, announcements and other building systems,” said Mike Adams, director of technology at Northlake.

Since installation, EverAlert’s synchronized time has kept everyone on time for buses, meetings and class changes. Additionally, the ability to use EverAlert as a bell system avoided the need to purchase a separate system. Northlake used the headphone jack on the display unit and added an outside-powered 110V AC speaker to amplify the sound. In addition, the daily announcements about upcoming events have improved communications throughout the school, particularly when there are bus schedule changes.

The latest advancements in emergency communication platform integration give schools more flexibility and reliability than ever before, enabling faster responses throughout a school or campus. When there’s a threat to a school community, every second counts, every message must be fast and accurate, and every system must perform.

Jeff Bergeson is business development manager at American Time in Dassel, Minn., where he’s responsible for the strategic market development of the EverAlert emergency communication platform.