Schools need to explore the use of more 'push' notification technologies.

Schools and colleges that invest thousands of dollars in mass notification systems also need to promote awareness of and participation in these systems for them to be effective, experts say. That’s one piece of advice contained in a new online resource from IT giant CDW-G, which recently unveiled its Mass Notification Toolkit web site March 2—giving educators and administrators a clearinghouse of information for how to implement and publicize potentially life-saving alerts effectively.

CDW-G created the free web site after a 2008 study from the company, “This is a Test – This is Only a Test: Updating America’s Emergency Alert Infrastructure,” showed that more than 30 percent of Americans polled had no knowledge of their town, city, or state’s notification system.

The study showed that most local governments turn primarily to television and radio to alert citizens of incoming storms or other emergencies. But with 1 billion text messages sent daily nationwide, the study encourages officials to embrace the medium’s immediacy. Although many schools and colleges have implemented text-message alert systems, some students don’t sign up to receive the messages, because these systems aren’t publicized adequately.

Houston Thomas, a public safety business development manager for CDW-G who helped complete the notification study, said relying on local media to alert students and faculty comes with its drawbacks. The CDW-G study–although it did not focus on education–showed that 64 percent of respondents said they turn to TV first during an emergency. Eighteen percent said they tune in to the radio, and 2 percent turned to eMail alerts.

“If you give it to 15 media outlets, you’ll get 15 different messages sometimes,” Thomas said, adding that there is an “awareness gap” even when institutions make great efforts to purchase and install state-of-the-art alert methods. “Citizens were not aware of the sophistication level of their cities’ [alert systems],” he said.

John Turner, director of networks and systems at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, said officials should not just spread the word about notification procedures, but should also find ways to target specific groups of faculty or students as cell-phone technology becomes more sophisticated.