One of the routinely frustrating things I see in the emergency plans for schools and childcare centers concerns the out-of-area contact (OAC). Typically, the OAC for these facilities is a relative (sister, uncle, etc.) of the principal or facility administrator who lives in another state – which often means it’s someone’s home or mobile phone number. The rationale of an OAC for a school or daycare is the same as it is for families: local phone lines are often disrupted during emergency / disaster incidents, even when there hasn’t been any significant damage to the telecommunications infrastructure. This is because the first thing most people do during an emergency is pull out their phone and try to connect with their loved ones. This surge use overwhelms the carrying capacity of the system, and within minutes or even seconds, users in the affected area will greeted with a busy signal or “please try your call again later” message. The out of area contact is a hedge, since local connections are generally overwhelmed first, while inter-state phone lines may remain open – or at least take longer to hit their capacity limits.
The thinking is that if you can’t connect a call with your spouse, kids, boss, etc. who are just across town, you might have better luck calling your common OAC in another state and let them know that you’re okay. The OAC in turn can relay that information to everyone else in your local “emergency” network. In certain situations, the OAC might even act as an “outside the fishbowl” coordinator of sorts – since they’ll know where everyone is (at least those they get a phone call from), and they may even have a better overall sense of the local situation than the locals, as they can monitor news feeds and social media, or pull up a map of the area. For example, if your OAC (e.g. grandma) knows [because they’ve received phone calls from Mom and Dad] that Dad’s at work, Mom’s at home, Billy’s at school, and little Susie’s at daycare – and they’ve also just seen a report that the main road standing between Dad and little Susie’s daycare is blocked, she might advise that Mom be the one to get Susie (instead of Dad who normally picks her up), while Dad heads for Billy’s school (who normally rides the bus).
When you consider the alternative of family spread out across town, totally unaware of each others’ status, and unable to communicate or connect with each other for hours or potentially days – the value of the out of area contact is obvious. And that value is no less applicable to organizations like schools and childcare facilities – because the first priority of any parent will be to know if their child is safe, and then reconnect with them.
But here’s where the OAC concept falls down: no school can be expected to call the individual OAC listed in the emergency file for every child, and imagine the result of dozens or hundreds of parents calling the school principal’s Aunt Edna in Iowa all within a matter of minutes. I say this, of course, knowing full well that 99% of parents with kids in school or in daycare have no idea what that facility’s out of area contact number is. But the problem remains the same – Aunt Edna isn’t really equipped to manage the volume of calls or information that would come streaming in – from either the calls of parents who got through to him – or from the frantic voicemails of those who didn’t.
Enter Google Voice (hereafter abbreviated “GV”). Google describes this service as “one number that is tied to you, not a device or a location.” Here’s their brief video description…
I’ve recently been exploring GV for my personal use, and came across this posting on LifeHacker.com that suggests it as a good emergency contact number alternative. I don’t think I made it through the first paragraph before it’s usefulness to schools and childcare facilities became immediately apparent.
A service like this offers schools and childcare centers the ability to set up a single GV number in an area code that is “located” in another state. What’s neat about the GV system is you can associate multiple “real” phone numbers with it – none of which have to be located in the same area code as the GV number. For example – a school in Seattle can set up their emergency OAC GV number picking an area code located in Indiana; then they identify five individuals – who could each be in a different state – to act as a cadre of OACs for the school if there’s ever an emergency. These OACs then add their own phone numbers into the school’s GV account. The school would then educate parents about the emergency GV number, and ask them to program it into their mobile phones.
When an incident occurs that is likely to overwhelm the local phone infrastructure, the first call the school administrator or designee should make is to the GV system – where they can update the voicemail greeting message with the appropriate information: the date/time, the general impact of the incident on the facility and occupants, what the staff is doing in response, and any special instructions the administrator wants parents to follow (e.g. what information to provide in their voicemail message, where to go to pick up students, what to do if they can’t, etc.).
Depending on how you decide to tweak the system settings, the OACs will be notified of the incident one way or another (e.g. a call, text msg, email), and can prepare to start receiving calls and coordinating information. [Those in the emergency management community will recognize this concept as similar to or even the same as a Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST).]
Parents will of course begin calling into the system themselves. If they reach one of the OACs directly, they can learn the status of the school and any specific instructions, and then leave their own info with the OAC who will record it. Parents who are routed into voicemail will hear the recording, and then have the opportunity to leave their own message. These recorded messages can be accessed by any / all of the OACs with an internet connection, and can play them at will. Additionally, the GV system will attempt to transcribe the message and provide the text – although this feature is an imperfect extra for now.
As the situation evolves, the OACs may choose to divy up responsibilities or take shifts. They might even decide to coordinate between themselves using a Google Hangout [one of my favorite new internet enabled browser-based technologies]. So long as it remains easier or possible for parents to call the facility’s GV number, everyone concerned – the parents, the facility staff and administrators, and even those 1st responders in the local community – will benefit from having a central mechanism to exchange information that requires nothing more than a working phone in the affected area, a decent internet connection outside the affected area, and at least one OAC available and committed to supporting the number one functional priority during any crisis situation: the timely and effective exchange of accurate information.
Because I have school-aged kids myself, and know how dismal most schools’ OAC plans are, that was the community I thought of first when considering how GV could be used for this purpose. But it’s a concept that could applied and utilized just as well by any small -medium sized organization. Just remember, it’s a concept that would definitely need to be tested, and it only works if everyone is educated about the GV number itself and how it all works. And of course – for a function as important as this – you always want to have a back up plan. You never know, Aunt Edna may still be needed.
If anyone decides to try it out – I love to hear how it goes!