Florida School Board Announces Cloud-Based Emergency Notification System

District officials hope the alert system will help employees, administrators and law enforcement update each other in real time in the event of an emergency.

by Joe Callahan, Ocala Star-Banner / October 23, 2018
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(TNS) — During extreme emergencies, like the active shooter situation at Forest High School in April, teachers and staff members were told to go on lock-down until they received further notice.

That included the receptionist in the lobby, who had to abandon her post, which is equipped with an intercom that is typically used to notify everyone at the school about an ongoing situation.

The end result was that dozens of teachers and thousands of students spent hours huddled in classrooms not knowing what was happening at the school.

School District officials are hoping a new mass notification alert system will help employees, administrators and law enforcement update each other in real time in the event of another such emergency.

The School Board reached a consensus to move forward in establishing what is called the "Regroup Mass Notification Alert System."

The the real-time notification app system, which typically costs about $100,000 annually, has been offered to the district at a discounted rate.

Dennis McFadden, the School District's Safe Schools coordinator, shared information about the new system at a work session last week.

The system will allow any employee to send out an alert if a crisis arises. The app will have a pull-down menu to access groups. The severity of the crisis will determine who receives the alert.

For example, users may have four groups they can chose to send the information. The groups may include district administration, school administration, school staff and first responders. In case of an armed person on campus, for example, a teacher could send out alert to everyone.

"Communication to the entire school became a problem (during the Forest incident)," McFadden noted. He said communicating with many people at one time was challenging.

Traditionally, the district has used radios, public address systems, telephones, emails and text messages to get the word out when there is a crisis situation. In some cases, the information never makes to all the employees affected.

Regroup is a cloud-based platform "that makes it easier for administrators to send and receive messages," according to a district PowerPoint presentation.

"Regroup provides the tools needed to save lives and property and allows instant alerting to large groups of recipients when a crisis occurs," the presentation notes.

Using Regroup, employees will be able to instantly send critical alerts from computers and smart devices, including phones and tablets.

McFadden said every second counts and employees will be able to transmit critical alerts to multiple communication channels simultaneously. All with a single click from what he called a "user friendly" interface," users can send messages to one or more of the following: digital signage, public address systems, computers, cellphones (text and voice) and social media.

"Accelerated transmission of critical alerts can reduce the margin for human error," McFadden told the board.

McFadden said Regroup officials will visit Marion and help the district set up geo-fencing of properties. This means the notifications will only work near and on a district campus or facility. If someone tries using the system off campus, it will call 911 and not alert school officials.

The system also connects to law enforcement. The main focus of the app is to help employees, administrators and law enforcement know what is happening in real time. The system can pinpoint a user within 9 feet, a valuable asset for first responders.

The ultimate goal, the PowerPoint noted, is to protect life and minimize casualties by notifying students and visitors or an existing emergency situation and instruct them on what actions they should take through accurate, concise, timely and well-directed messages.

School Board Chairman Beth McCall urged district officials to start with a few pilot programs at a few schools before implementing districtwide.

©2018 the Ocala Star-Banner (Ocala, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.