Category Archives: Family Preparedness

Google Voice: School / Childcare Solution for Out of Area Emergency Number?

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!

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You Do What You Can

Hiking

One of my hobbies prior to having children was hiking and camping. Okay, that’s not true. I really didn’t have any hobbies pre-parenthood, because I was so busy doing other stuff that could hardly be defined as anything remotely resembling a hobby. But if I did have a hobby before I had kids, it would have been back-country hiking and camping.

When I was finally in a position where I could pursue hiking and camping as an actual hobby, I had years worth of pre-conceived notions of what that experience was going to be like. Unfortunately, those notions didn’t take into consideration that a 3-year old can’t be expected to hike multi-day treks along backcountry goat trails. Since we couldn’t exactly leave him at home, my wife suggested I needed to figure out how to be okay with a 1-2 mile stroll in the local park, until we could work our way up to something more closely resembling the cover photo on Outdoor magazine.

Emergency preparedness can be like that too.

One of the frustrations I frequently hear is, “how am I supposed to do or get all of those things on that list?” There’s so much to do, there’s so many things to get. The list they’re referring to…well it’s any of them really. Go to any emergency / disaster preparedness website and pick one. The good ones focus more on actions you should take to prepare, versus the “stuff” you should acquire. Anyone who has attended one of my preparedness seminars know I have a bias against pre-packaged “disaster kits” – simply because it’s just too tempting for the average person to buy a kit, throw it in the trunk or the closet, and call it good. No plan. No conversation with the family, or the kids’ school, or the boss at work. “Hey, I got a kit  – isn’t that good enough!”

No – it isn’t. But at least it’s a start. And for those of us who are in the preparedness evangelism business, it’s often the best we can hope for. But we can still dream. And when we do dream, we dream of families sitting around the dinner table and playing the “what if?” game. It goes something like…

Dad: “Hey kids – what if tomorrow there was a really big earthquake. What would you do?”

Jr.: “Gee dad – I’d drop, cover and hold, just like you showed us!”

Susie: “Yeah! And then I’d secure my school emergency kit from my cubby, while I waited for the school administration to realize their earthquake plan didn’t consider anything beyond ‘drop, cover and hold,’ and now half their staff want to leave because they have their own kids at home, or in daycare.”

Mom: “That’s right Susie. And fortunately, because we know it might take a while for your Dad or me to get to there, we’ve made arrangements with our good friend Betty who lives right next to your school to come pick you up until we can get to her house. And we’ve included her on the emergency contact list at your school as someone authorized to pick you up during those types of incidents.”

Dad: “Mom’s right, kids. It could take a while for one of us to get there. But the maps we’ve put in all our kits highlight what routes each of us will be most likely to take, and have also indicated all the possible emergency shelter locations along the way – so that way we all have at least an idea of what each of us will try to do – or where we might be depending on the conditions.”

Jr: “Gosh dad – tomorrow night can we do a ‘what if’ we wake up in the middle of the night and smell smoke?”

Dad: “You bet son! And that reminds me, it’s been at least six months since I replaced the batteries in the smoke detectors. I’m going to take care of that while you and Susie clear the table.”

Can’t you picture it? Sure you can. Just like every Thanksgiving at your house resembles a Normal Rockwell painting, right?

But why not? Preparedness isn’t about doing everything all at once. It’s little actions here and there that over time add up. It’s the periodic (but regular) “what if?” conversations at the dinner table. It’s changing out the batteries in the flashlights. It’s picking up a few extra cans of food for the pantry. It’s refreshing the 5-gallon gas can you keep filled for the generator in the garden shed. It’s asking your co-workers if they’re ready for the approaching winter storm, and offering some encouragement via a few of easy preparedness tips. All little things you can do here and there, because it’s become a part of your “resilience culture” mind-set. And if just one of those things is all you can do this week – so be it.

But do what you can, when you can, and eventually you’ll have done a lot.