The dos and don’ts of emergency communications in schools

Your alarm goes off in the morning and, stifling a yawn, you roll over and switch it off. You briefly wrestle with your willpower until you’re out of bed and crossing the room to the window. You pull the curtains back and your eyes adjust to the sunlight now filling the room – but what’s this?

The air is thick with a dense and heavy smoke that covers the sky as far as you can see. A quick check of the news confirms that there has been another forest fire just a few miles away that’s caused the air quality to hit dangerous levels across the region. Quickly, you flip over to your emails to find a note from the head of school asking you to notify all parents, legal guardians and students that school will be closed for the day.

Whilst the specifics may differ to the above example, a scenario in which you will be required to send out emergency communications en masse is one that you’re likely to face at least once during your time as a member of staff at a school.

With technology advancing so rapidly, schools around the world are facing a wealth of new challenges and opportunities surrounding how and when they issue emergency communications to parents and students.

So, we’ve explored some of the key dos and don’ts for you to consider when sending emergency messages, highlighting some of the most effective things you can do to make sure they reach the right people at the right time.

When should you send emergency comms?

You don’t want to be sending out “emergency comms” every day, or members of your school community will stop paying attention to them. So, the first thing you need to do is decide whether or not the situation warrants an emergency broadcast.

As a rough guide, please find below some typical situations in which we’d expect an emergency broadcast to be sent to the following members of the school community.

To parents:

  • All extra-curricular activities have been cancelled today,
  • Due to severe weather, parents to collect children from school early,
  • Severe weather in the area school is closed today,
  • There has been a car/pedestrian accident just outside the school main gates, please be cautious when collecting your children,
  • The school bus has been delayed by approximately X minutes,
  • The school trip will be returning later than planned; the updated pick up time for students will be at X o’clock.

To students:

  • The building needs to be evacuated immediately,
  • An incident affecting an individual student or a group of students,
  • There has been an unexpected schedule alteration,
  • Sports match cancellations or changes.

What’s the best platform to use?

Once you’ve evaluated the situation and determined that an emergency broadcast is relevant, you’ll need to decide on the best platform to use to ensure the message reaches your desired audience.

As one of the fastest growing technology phenomena ever, it’s hardly surprising that we’ve discovered many schools looking to mobile phones as their principle tool for emergency communications. Plus, with recent statistics highlighting that there are now almost 1 billion more mobile connections than people in the world, you’re almost guaranteed to get hold of the people you need to on this platform.

When it comes to mobile devices, you have multiple options to consider with email, apps and SMS all capable of sending and delivering key information on a global scale. Here at iSAMS, we’ve developed a suite of multi-lingual apps to help disseminate important messages but, when it comes to emergency communications, we believe the best platform is SMS. That’s why we developed our SMS Gateway; to support you in effectively sending emergency broadcasts from within your iSAMS MIS or via the iTeacher App.

But why SMS over push notifications?

In short, you widen your reach. Almost 2.5 billion more people own mobile phones than smartphones, which means that you can’t assume everyone will have easy access to emails and apps via a smartphone. Not only this, but many users disable app push notifications – so there’s no guarantee you’ll reach them via this platform. Meanwhile, SMS is universally compatible with every mobile phone on the market.

Get recipients to engage with your messages

Now you know which platform you’re using to send your emergency messages; your next challenge is making sure that they’re actually read.

Text messages are much harder than emails to ignore, with them delivered directly to mobile devices and with less chance of them being mistaken for or lost in a sea of spam.

Having said that, there are still three quick and easy things you can do when writing your emergency broadcasts to make sure they’re being read and actioned in the right way:

  1. Keep it short – preferably no more than 160 characters.
  2. Keep it simple – focus on who’s affected, why, what to do about it and when.
  3. Bear in mind that multiple messages may be needed, eg regular updates.
  4. Set up templates of commonly occurring situations you can use as a basis for consistency.

Using these tips, an example of an emergency SMS for our earlier scenario would be:

[SCHOOL NAME] will be closed today due to dangerous air quality. Staff, students & parents are advised to stay at home. We hope school will reopen tomorrow. Updates to follow.

Keeping a record

It’s easy to let administrative tasks slip under the radar, but keeping a record of all the emergency communications you send and who receives them is hugely important.

Not only does having a clear paper trail protect you if needed, but you can ensure that your broadcasts are received by everyone who needs to see them and can use them as a template for any potential future comms that are required.

This can be quite challenging, which is why the iSAMS SMS Gateway automates much of this process, as well as offering detailed analytics surrounding each series of communication. This can even be broken down to as granular a level as gathering key data per text.

Having a designated platform such as this where you can view all outbound logs, including status changes as messages are received on each recipient’s handset, and tracking data, which can verify whether the SMS has been read, is vital to help you understand the effectiveness of your emergency communications.

Using this information will help you determine how you move forwards with communications of this nature in the future, ensuring that you’re as effective as possible with emergency broadcasts.

Want to know more about iSAMS SMS Gateway?

If you’re interested in an intuitive and sophisticated tool to help you manage SMS communications across your whole school community, you can find out more about our SMS Gateway by visiting our website.

If you’d like to see this module in action, please get in touch and we’d be delighted to organise a free no-obligation demo for you.