Staying On Message
Print Issue: February 2016
When the highest floodwaters ever recorded in the state of Texas shut down schools across several counties in May 2015, the Harris County Department of Education was prepared to keep students, parents, and the community updated on its operating status.
Using a cloud-based communications tool called PIERPro, the 25 school districts in Harris County were able to quickly send out notifications on closures and delays to the entire community and media outlets.
Ecomet Burley, director of The Center for Safe and Secure Schools at the Harris County Department of Education, says one of his organization’s primary jobs is to facilitate communication among schools and students, parents, and the community when a safety or security issue arises.
The center was established in 1999 to act as a partner to the 25 Harris County school districts in safety and security matters. It is the official liaison with the local police and fire departments, as well as with the City of Houston and Harris County Offices of Emergency Management, Houston METRO, and the Harris County Office of Public Health and Environmental Services.
In 2009, the center invested in a secure platform for sending and receiving messages, produced by crisis management firm Witt O’Briens, called PIERPro (Public Information Emergency Response System).
“We wanted to help schools communicate more effectively, more readily, and develop a system that was more user-friendly for the public and for parents,” Burley notes.
The cloud-based communications tool integrates with the department of education’s public-facing site, www.safeschoolalerts.org, where anyone in the community can learn the operating status at individual districts and schools in Harris County.
The map displays each school district in a distinct color. Each school is represented by a building icon that will appear in one of three colors to indicate status—green for open, orange for delayed, or red for closed. These colors and updates are controlled through PIERPro.
On the administrative side, each district grants authorized personnel login rights to the platform so they can control the messaging for their own schools. Users log in with a username and password. From there they can send SMS, e-mail, or text-to-voice notifications to recipients with the click of a button. Parents can subscribe to push notifications to receive updates on a school’s operational status.
Burley says that when he joined the department in March 2015, several of the user accounts had expired, and personnel who had left still had access.
“One of the first things we did was go in and reactivate and update these accounts,” he notes. “Things happen in school districts, personnel turn over, responsibilities and roles change, and we needed to make sure that all of our end users had active accounts with viable administrators able to be responsible for overseeing and managing the system.”
The Center for Safe and Secure Schools has a designated liaison in its office to work with the administrators throughout the school districts on keeping their accounts up to date and assisting with any technical issues.
In addition to the May 2015 flooding, Burley says the platform really made an impression on the school districts during a severe weather event in 2012.
“We had over 715,000 site hits, and the messages distributed exceed 10,000–so that was truly a watershed moment for use of the system,” he adds.
PIERPro can be developed or updated to the unique specifications of its clients, and Harris County has actually been through two iterations of the solution. “After 1.0 came out we listened hard to our end users and what they told us about the usability of it and the user friendliness of it,” Burley says.
The center worked closely with Witt O’Briens to update the tool and released the new version in June 2015. With version 2.0, PIERPro can be accessed by administrators on any smart device so they can manage alerts on the go.
The latest version also enables television stations to receive “chyron feeds” delivered directly to their broadcast production systems from the software. Burley notes that the news stations, which are inundated with status messages from area schools, sometimes put out misinformation about openings, closures, and delays.
“The new version helps us get the message out quicker but also accurately, which is very important when you’re dealing with an emergency or a disaster,” Burley says. Those messages can be updated from an administrative account at any time.
The mass notification tool has been so effective that a charter school asked to join the Harris County Department of Education because of it.
“They wanted access to our school notification system,” according to Burley. “So that’s been a really nice byproduct of having the system being branded to Harris County Department of Education—it’s helped us gain some membership.”
Burley notes that time and accuracy are both of the essence in the event of an emergency, and the platform meets both of those needs.
“When you have a system that is integrated like PIERPro, it makes it easier and less time consuming to contact the people you need to in an emergency,” he says.
For more information: Amy Goldsberry, www.wittobriens.com, [email protected], 281.606.4717