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Schools go online in emergency notification system

PTAs will use e-mail instead of ‘phone tree’ to inform parents of school emergencies

By Elizabeth Celms
Mercer Island Reporter

The landline telephone is quickly becoming a relic of the 20th century. Within the past 10 years, mounting cell phone and e-mail technology has left the home phone in its digital dust. Next on the communications endangered list: the emergency phone tree.

As of this year, the PTAs of Islander Middle School and Lakeridge Elementary will no longer be using the emergency phone tree, a communications alert system used on the Island for years.

The logic behind the phone tree is simple; parent A calls parent B, C and D, who then each calls their own list of parents. And so the news shoots through a starburst of phone lines. Yet in today’s e-centric society (no pun intended), Internet access and portable high-tech gadgets that combine cell phones and e-mail, such as the i-Phone and Blackberry, have created a new medium for emergency notification.

“Other means of emergency communication now available, including widespread access to cell phones by students and parents...make the manual system of calling home telephone numbers both redundant and largely ineffective as a way of informing parents of a school emergency,” reads the PTA newsletter sent home to IMS parents.

In place of the emergency phone tree, the PTA is turning to an emergency e-mail listserv. The effect is essentially the same. When news breaks, an alert e-mail is forwarded at once to every address on the listserv.

“The listserv is much easier than the phone tree — if you can imagine calling around to all those different numbers. It’s more effective,” said Joanna Berg, president of West Mercer PTA, which replaced their emergency phone tree with a listserv several years ago.

Island Park PTA has also completed the transition to a listserv alert system.

“The problem with a phone tree is: If a parent doesn’t answer the phone, then what is the person making the call supposed to do? There’s no accountability or way to follow up,” said Island Park PTA president Jamie Witman.

Toby Suhm, president of the Mercer Island PTA council, has personally experienced the difficulties of using a phone tree. He recalls a number of past incidents — from a kidnapping at Lakeridge to snow-day school closures — when the system failed its purpose. Many parents who were called at 6 or 7 a.m. had already learned of the news, either by radio or Internet, and were irked at being woken up so early, Suhm said. Others never received the call because they were away from the phone.

“Often times, [we] couldn’t get ahold of people because there were break-downs in the phone tree. This created anger on behalf of some parents who asked, ‘How come I didn’t get a call?’” he said.

And because a phone tree depends on word-of-mouth, much of the news gets distorted along the way. Anyone who has played the game “telephone” can contest to this.

“The message gets changed through each hand-off, and so the information gets convoluted. Then parents are confused about exactly what’s going on,” the PTA president added. “I think a listserv is a much more reliable and effective method.”

Mercer Island High School is currently the only school on the Island using both an emergency phone tree and a listserv.

Those parents who have not yet submitted their e-mail addresses to a listserv are urged to visit www.schoolreport.com, a Web site that automatically distributes school-closure or emergency information to all listserv names. Parents can also join a district-wide and individual grade-level listserv.

But what about those parents who don’t have an e-mail account or seldom check their e-mail?

Long-time PTA member Dorothy Swarts, who developed a PTA listserv five years ago for legislative purposes, believes this is due cause for concern.

“I don’t think [canceling the emergency phone tree] is a good idea. Many parents don’t look at their e-mail every day. I know I don’t. But I do check my voicemail two or three times a day,” she said.

Swarts worries that, without telephone contact, many parents won’t receive news of an emergency on time.

“I know that if I want a response right away I’ll call people. Plus, with e-mail, you don’t always know if the message has been received. There’s no response confirmation,” she said.

Berg agrees that the telephone is still an essential medium for communication. She feels that e-mail shouldn’t replace the phone, but rather supplement it.

“E-mail is a very effective way to get communication out. But we still use phones to clarify information,” the PTA president said. “Phones aren’t going away, but rather e-mail has become an addition to phones.”

Of course, if an emergency situation were to occur, traditional safety cautions still apply.

PTA members remind all parents that they should keep a battery-operated radio at home to obtain emergency information during a power outage. Also, they urge parents to make sure their child knows all numbers of personal contact, including cell phones, work phone and/or pager numbers. Students should also have at least three phone numbers memorized — such as a parent, guardian or close friend — in case their primary emergency contact is unreachable.

For more information on MISD listervs, go to: www.schoolreport.org. For information on the district’s emergency plan, go to: www.misd.k12.wa.us.

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