Schools across Southern California have turned to mass-notification systems and other forms of technology to send updates to thousands of parents and students during the devastating wildfires that have caused what officials believe is at least $1 billion in damage in San Diego County alone.

Don Phillips, superintendent of the 33,000-student Poway Unified School District in northern San Diego County, said his district’s use of Connect-ED, a mass-notification system from the NTI Group Inc., has been instrumental in sending messages to students and parents about fire-related school decisions.

Phillips spoke with eSchool News on Oct. 24 as he returned to his home after having been evacuated.

He said the district learned from past fires that regular and timely updates to staff, students, and families are critical during such emergencies. The district has been able to use its Connect-ED system to send out numerous messages each day as additional information has become available.

The district’s system features a standard contact-information list for parents’ eMail addresses and telephone numbers, but it also provides an emergency list for extenuating circumstances.

"It will call every number [in the system]. We think, at some point, we had two-thirds of our district evacuated, and it wasn’t like you could count on people having eMail access or home answering machines working," Phillips said. "Most everyone had additional cell phone numbers or numbers of friends or family. People are networking, and it comes as close to 100-percent penetration as you can get."

Speed, Phillips said, is critical in a situation such as this one, when fires are burning out of control and can spread rapidly.

"On Sunday night at 9:20 we made the decision to cancel school on Monday, and by 10 p.m. all of our families had been called–that’s 33,000 students and parents that we reached in that very small window," he said. "Most traditional systems would take five to six hours, and a system [for a district] as large as we are could take 10 to 12 hours before dialing its way through."

In the coming days, Phillips said, the district will continue to use its mass-notification system for wildfire-related messages and information.

"We’re starting to acknowledge the sense of loss and trauma our families are going through, and we also want to thank all the people who have stepped forward and have helped in some way–this system gives us a way to help support that and keep families updated," he said as the crisis continued.

"We anticipate that we’ll have a large number of families who have lost their homes. We don’t know the final number yet, and the fires aren’t out, but it could easily reach several hundred."

Hundreds of San Diego teachers volunteered at the city’s Qualcomm Stadium in a program sponsored by the San Diego Education Association, working two-hour shifts to help keep the youngest evacuees busy with activities such as drum lessons and word games. Other students have been writing stories and coloring pictures about their experiences in the last few days.

About a dozen school buses are helping to keep evacuees moving. The buses–including many specially equipped for the disabled–are becoming a familiar sight at evacuation areas. At the city’s request, the buses are mostly being used to move elderly residents to safer areas.

After-school activities such as Halloween carnivals, fall fairs, and athletic events have been cancelled or postponed throughout the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) through Sunday, Oct. 28.

No fire-related damage to SDUSD schools or facilities had been reported at press time. Reopening of individual schools, education officials said on Oct. 24, will depend on the situation in the neighborhood and whether the school is being used as an emergency shelter.

As of the fourth day, the fires have destroyed 1,500 homes and caused at least a half-million people to flee–the largest evacuation in state history. At least 1,200 of the damaged homes were in San Diego County.

"Clearly, this is going to be a $1 billion or more disaster," Ron Lane, San Diego County’s director of emergency services, told reporters during a news conference.

The announcement of San Diego’s staggering losses came as President Bush signed a major disaster declaration for California in the wake of wildfires that have burned about 410,000 acres, or 640 square miles.

The declaration puts in motion long-term federal recovery programs for state and local governments, families, individuals, and certain nonprofit organizations.

Exhausted firefighters hoped fighting the 16 fires would become easier with an expected slackening of the fierce Santa Ana wind that had stoked the explosive blazes. Forecasters said the wind would begin to weaken late in the afternoon of Oct. 24, followed by cooling sea breezes.

The shift could allow for a greater aerial assault and help firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes, said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

"If the weather cooperates, maybe we can turn the tide," he said.

Crews were anticipating an injection of additional firefighters and equipment from other states, mostly throughout the West. Frustration over the firefighting effort began to emerge Tuesday when a fire official said not enough had been done to protect homes.

Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather told reporters that firefighters’ lives were threatened because too few crews were on the ground. He said a quick deployment of aircraft could have corralled a massive blaze near Irvine.

"It is an absolute fact: Had we had more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire," he said.

Twenty-one firefighters and at least 24 others have been injured. One person was killed by the flames, and the San Diego medical examiner’s officer listed four other deaths as connected to the blazes.

The state’s top firefighter said Prather misstated the availability of firefighters and equipment. Eight of the state’s nine water-dumping helicopters were in Southern California by Sunday, when the first fires began, along with 13 air tankers, said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Grijalva said the fires, spread by winds that at times topped 100 mph, would have overwhelmed most efforts to fight them.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dismissed the criticism when questioned by an ABC News reporter. He praised the rapid deployment of fire crews and equipment across a region from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.

"Anyone that is complaining about the planes just wants to complain, because that’s a bunch of nonsense," he said. "The fact is that we could have all the planes in the world here–we have 90 aircraft here, and six that we got especially from the federal government–and they can’t fly because of the wind situation."

Thousands of people packed emergency shelters, where many had an agonizing wait to find out whether their homes had survived.

"I’m ready to go, but at the same time, I don’t want to go up there and be surprised," said Mary Busch, 41, who did not know whether her home in Ramona, in San Diego County, was still standing.

At press time, she had lived at the evacuation center at Qualcomm Stadium for three days, sleeping in her SUV with her 11- and 8-year-old sons.

"I feel safe there," she said. "It’s all I have. I don’t have any way to know what happened to my house."

Others were eager to return to houses they were confident had survived.

"I called my home and my answering machine still works, so that’s how I know we’re OK," said Rancho Bernardo resident Fuli Du, who packed his belongings Oct.24, preparing to leave Qualcomm.

"I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back, but I’m ready to go home," he said.

Links:

Poway Unified School District

San Diego Unified School District

Connect-ED