As lost children and long separations continue to haunt families in the aftermath of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina–and as a whole new season of hurricanes begins–emergency responders are urging parents and educators to plan better for possible disasters. Now, a new disaster preparedness web site aims to help. Children and school staff need to know how to reconnect with their families if emergency evacuations disrupt schools, close roads, down telephone lines, and overwhelm cell phone towers. To ensure that families, educators, and communities respond more effectively when disaster strikes, a New Jersey communications company has launched a new, low-cost service that loads many of the nation’s top emergency management resources into a single, user-friendly web site. Called Ready-or-Not, the web site features an impressive array of content providers ranging from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to the Mayo Clinic and the National Next of Kin Registry. Subscribers also can tailor-make the site to meet local or state needs and concerns. For example, the Louisiana Educators Association has included a variety of “how-to” resources for families and high-quality public service videos that help parents understand the importance of advanced planning.

Tips range from creating a plan, protecting family records, and accessing parent and teacher resources, to dealing with pets, reconnecting with far-flung relatives, and supporting family members with disabilities.

Subscribers also may add community-specific resources such as evacuation shelters, emergency first aid services, food pantries, and water stations.

Launched in April, the non-commercial service is designed to help parents and educators find available resources quickly and easily, according to Fred Campbell, managing director and founder of The Network IQ, the company that developed Ready-or-Not.

According to Campbell, the idea for the site was inspired by the disastrous lack of communications and coordinated response before, during, and after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

“The was no reason New Orleans kids and their families had to be so devastated by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina,” said Campbell. “If there was time to give these storms names, there was time to get a response plan in action–and that did not happen.”

Campbell said he started Ready-or-Not in schools because children are so particularly devastated by disasters, especially when they are separated from their families for long periods of time.

Because schools typically play a critical role in most emergency response plans, linking all of the resources to the school or district web site might help raise community awareness regarding the need to plan, as well as speed parents’ access to needed services, school leaders say.

“What I like about the Ready-or-Not program is that it brings all the disaster preparedness, disaster response, and disaster recovery information together from so many different original sources,” said John Polomano, superintendent of the Bordentown Regional School District in central New Jersey. “It is ‘one-stop shopping’ with everything centralized for easy use.”

Bordentown’s Ready-or-Not web site, for example, includes local police, fire department, and emergency management information. Links to New Jersey state resources also are listed, along with national sites such as the American Red Cross and the National Weather Service.

The price is affordable for even the most cash-strapped schools and nonprofit organizations. A full-year subscription is $279, while renewals are $159.

With federal officials urging more self-reliance and greater planning by individuals, families, and communities in Katrina’s wake–and in response to growing concerns regarding an impending pandemic flu–the affordable service comes at a critical time.

Most educators have more questions than answers at this point in preparing for pandemics, terrorist threats, bioterrorism, and natural disasters, but linking all available resources together in one parent-friendly web site is a good place to start.

“The school and the community are intrinsically tied together, so the more we can share the better,” Polomano said. “We must do the same with disaster preparedness. As word spreads about the great utility of the Ready-or-Not program, I think we will see many people who have no direct connection with Bordentown schools taking full advantage of the service.”

Campbell plans regular updates to the site as more information becomes available, including real-time information when disasters become imminent in a community’s immediate area.

Currently available only in English, Ready-or-Not also reportedly has a Spanish-language version in the works.

“We are getting feedback that our approach may be a simple, common-sense addition to better risk management for school systems,” Campbell said.

Nora Carr–stakeholder and community relations columnist fo eSchool News–is chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.

Links:

Ready-or-Not
http://www.ready-or-not.org

Bordentown Regional School District Ready-or-Not page
http://www.ready-or-not.org/NJ/BRS/

Bordentown Regional School District
http://www.bordentown.k12.nj.us/