eSchool Communication:

Porter Township School Superintendent Jim Petersen is no stranger to inclement weather. He’s used to making difficult decisions regarding weather-related delays in this northwest Indiana district, where Lake Michigan affects the climate. Making the decision is the easy part–it’s communicating with parents quickly and accurately that can lead to problems. Thanks to a new technology from Honeywell Inc., though, Petersen’s job has become a lot easier.

Honeywell Instant Alert for Schools has taken the guesswork out of communicating delays and other safety-related information to parents. Instant Alert is a web-based notification service that allows school administrators to broadcast a message instantaneously to any and all contact points that a parent or guardian supplies. The service was designed to provide an alternative to traditional communication methods such as phone trees, which can be unreliable and inefficient. Now, schools can communicate with parents and the community immediately and consistently via home telephones, cell phones, eMail, pagers, personal digital assistants, and voice-mail systems.

“I sometimes have to call off school in a matter of 15 minutes, and like most schools, we used the radio to get the message out,” Petersen said. “There’s no guarantee that parents are listening, though, so we could never be sure that everyone got the message, and that was troubling to us. We were using early 20th-century technology to solve early 21st-century problems.”

While traditional telephone trees and paper fliers could be used to reach each family individually, Petersen found these methods to be unreliable. Messages can change from person to person, answering machines aren’t always reliable, and parents might not check their child’s backpack every evening. Instant Alert provides the communication solutions that Porter Township schools needed.

To get a message out to parents using Instant Alert, Petersen will either go online to create a message or call Honeywell’s global service response center. The center then will broadcast the message immediately to each contact point assigned by parents. All parents will receive the same message in text format or through an automated voice system. A consistent message is absolutely necessary to ensure students’ safety, Petersen said–especially during an emergency.

A bomb threat from two years ago still weighs on the mind of some parents and was the catalyst for interest in Instant Alert. Cheryl Ivetic, mother of two Porter Township students, remembers the frustration of not knowing the safety of her children.

“When you ask where your child is and no one can tell you, it’s frightening,” Ivetic said. “The bomb threat made me aware of how easily things can become confusing in an emergency situation.”

Peterson added, “During my tenure as superintendent, bomb threats are the worst crisis situations I’ve encountered, because you have a group of displaced students. Media often hear police radio scanners and pick up on unsubstantiated information. The end result is increased stress and anxiety for all parties. Instant Alert allows us to get a uniform message to parents and stop rumors in their tracks.”

When Petersen first heard about Instant Alert, though, his initial thoughts were far from bomb threats. He was most concerned about communicating weather delays and everyday information, such as athletic practice cancellations and school picture-day reminders. Instant Alert’s flexibility makes communicating information easy, allowing schools to target messages to specific groups such as clubs, committees, PTA members, and sports teams. By targeting the district’s messages, Petersen has eliminated many of its communication woes.

“It’s the everyday communication that’s harder to track than emergency communication,” Petersen said. “Now we can make sure parents know about simple things, like extracurricular activity cancellations, so parents can make sure their child is picked up on time and is safe.”

Petersen also knew the service would save administrators a great deal of time–time that could be redirected to activities that benefit the district and its students.

Parents have been very supportive of the Instant Alert service, which assures their privacy by assigning passwords for individual accounts. Parents can go online any time and update their contact information from home, at work, or at school. They also can add grandparents or guardians to their contact information, in case they cannot pick up their child from school themselves.

Ultimately, Petersen believes the service is about safety–for physically keeping students safe and for making sure parents know their children are safe. From weather emergencies and bomb threats, to basketball cancellations and reminders about field trip permission slips, Instant Alert allows parents to be informed at all times about the well-being of their children.

“Keeping kids safe is what we do. It’s a responsibility that every school in the nation has,” Petersen said. “We need to educate, but above all we have to keep our children safe, and I believe this system will allow us to do a better job than we’re doing now.”


Porter Township School Corp.

Honeywell Inc.

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