Category Archives: Technology

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 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!


How I Used G+ Hangout to Be the Coolest Teacher on Campus

Artzen Hall, Western Washington University.

WWU Arntzen HallImage via Wikipedia

Last night I used my favorite feature of Google Plus – the Hangout – to do something a little different in my Theory & Practice of Emergency Management class at Western Washington University.  If you’re not familiar with the Google Plus Hangout, it’s basically a web-based multi-site video-teleconference platform that allows up to ten locations to participate simultaneously.  [Given how well it works and the fact that it’s free, I’m surprised it hasn’t received greater attention so far.]

The whole thing was fairly experimental.  I meet with the class twice a week for an hour and 50 minute sessions, during which we discuss a different aspect of the emergency management field.  Most of the assigned readings address how a particular subject is supposed to be done from a “theoretical best practice” perspective, and then in class we discuss the who, what, when, where, how and why the theory is or isn’t reflected in practical application.  But at the end of the day, the only perspective the students get outside the readings I assign is mine, and as stunningly brilliant as I am, I wanted them to get some alternative viewpoints.

One tactic I’ve employed fairly consistently is to bring in a guest lecturer now and then.  This is a great opportunity for the students to hear from important voices in the local emergency management community.  Last quarter, the Director of Washington State Division of Emergency Management (and current President of the National Association of Emergency Managers) Jim Mullen did a guest stint, which the students really enjoyed.  Director Mullen is a strong supporter of the Disaster Reduction and Emergency Planning Program at the school, so while his willingness to travel all the way up to Bellingham for a 140 minute conversation wasn’t surprising, it was nevertheless very appreciated.  But as valuable as these local perspectives are – I still wanted to tap into the wealth of knowledge I was benefiting from personally via my #SMEM (social media for emergency managers) contacts.

Ever since Google Plus emerged, I began experimenting with using the Hangout feature for communicating within my department (at my day job – not my teaching gig), as well as with other members of the local emergency management community.  I immediately saw the potential use for this capability to bring additional voices into the classroom, and initiated a hurried attempt during my summer quarter class.Unfortunately, because it was such a last minute effort (and perhaps also because Google Plus was still somewhat nascent)  – only one person I contacted was able to participate on such short notice: Jim Garrow (@jgarrow) of Public Health / Social Media / Gov. 2.0 rockstar fame[that’s right Jim – I used the “R” word].  Being the progressive communications capable guy that he is, he was ready to go from the moment I asked.It was a valuable proof of concept both from a technology side of things, but more importantly, because the students really appreciated hearing the perspective of another practitioner from a) a different part of the country, and b) from a different agency than whence “emergency management” types often come.

Fast forward a couple months.  I starting the quarter knowing this was absolutely something I wanted to try again, and thus was a little more on the ball this time in identifying and lining up potential guest speakers.  My goal was five participants, each offering a different perspective, from different parts of the country.  I will also admit, I wanted to lean more toward the younger end of the spectrum – because frankly – my students are all within a year or two of entering the job market, and I wanted them to hear from people who might have some insight or personal experience to share in that regard.

Given the challenges I had securing participants last time, I invited six individuals of exceptional caliber, fully expecting at least one and maybe two would not be able to participate for one reason or another.  I toyed with inviting several others – but too many would be cumbersome – and honestly I wanted to keep the rest of the names in reserve to invite for a future class’ Hangout.

So imagine my surprise when all six very graciously said, “I’d be happy to.”  It was the perfect mix:

  • Heather Blanchard, co-founder
  • Cheryl Bledsoe, Director, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency & President, Washington State Emergency Managers Association
  • Aaron Collins, Sr. Risk Control Manager, Starbucks Coffee Company
  • Alicia Johnson, Resilience & Recovery Manager, San Francisco Department of Emergency Management
  • Justin Kates, Director of Emergency Management, City of Nashua, NH [at 23, possibly the youngest Dir. of EM in the country]
  • Gisli Olafsson, Emergency Response Director of NetHope

We all got connected about 4:10pm (Pacific), and having already provided everyone’s bios to my students, launched right into the Q&A.  I asked each panelist to state where the worked now, how they got into the field, and what they liked most / least about it.  Oh – and keep your answer under 3 minutes.  When you’ve got six people, the time/answer management ratio is important.

I’d asked my students to read the panelists backgrounds, and prepare some questions I could have at the ready once my opening question was done.  I don’t know if it was shyness, confusion, or something else, but none of the 17 or so students had any prepared questions ready to go.  So I free-formed it, and just asked questions I’d be curious about if I were in the students’ shoes.  As the insights starting flowing off the screen, all of sudden students starting scribbling down questions and bringing them to me.  First a single question, then two, then multi-part questions, then a whole page from one student…

It was awesome.  One or two of them were actually antsy as they waited for their question to be asked.

Ideally it would have been nice to let the students themselves ask the questions, but the technology made that an awkward proposition.  One of the neat features about the Hangout is that the main or “big” screen automatically shows whoever is speaking – or rather speaking the loudest.  Having said that, if one person is speaking and another starts typing (oh yeah – there’s a chat window participants can use simultaneously – more on that later), if the keyboard is particularly loud, the mic would pick that up and put the offending typist on the “big” screen.  Similarly, if the students starting commenting or shouting out questions… well… it would be easy for minor mayhem to ensue.  Fortunately, the system offers the ability to mute not only your own mic, but that of the other participants as well.  But the practical implication was the students needed to provide me with the questions, and then I’d un-mute, ask the panel, and re-mute.

Alright – enough about the ugly technical details.  Everyone was having such a good time, we continued on past the pre-designated endtime.  When it finally was over, all the panelists stated they definitely wanted their co-panelists’ contact info, and offered their own email addresses to the students in case they had additional questions that they didn’t have a chance to ask.  Once we’d signed-off and the students were packing up to head out the door, all of them expressed how much they enjoyed it, and at least a half-dozen of them came up to tell me that was one of the coolest experiences they’d had in school.

Wow.  What teacher wouldn’t like to hear that.

Now, roughly 24 hours later, I’m still on a little bit of an emotional high, but confounded at the same time.  I mean, conceptionally it’s pretty simple – bring in outside voices to add value to your educational program, using readily available, inexpensive technology.  It seems sort of like “so what – why does this feel like a big deal?”  Maybe it’s not.  But I can’t deny the nagging sense I’ve crossed some sort of boundary – or perhaps instead, that a boundary is merely melting away as we continue to explore how to utilize the new tools and technologies becoming increasingly ubiquitous and accessible.  If I can facilitate this kind of experience for my students using little more than a web-camera, an internet connection, and the generous time of a great group of smart people – what’s not possible anymore?

So maybe I’m not really the coolest teacher on campus.  But I sure felt like it last night.

[a final note: I have to acknowledge Gisli Olafsson, who participated from a hotel in Spain, Madrid – where it was 2:30am his time.  He was on the hook himself to get up that morning and teach his own class, so as one who thoroughly enjoys my own beauty-sleep, I owe you a special thank you!]