Alert calls were spotty in first use of reverse 911

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 29, 2008

FRANKLIN—A notification system that was implemented in October by the city didn’t quite reach everyone when used by the school system last week.

The reverse 911 public alert system was utilized for the first time by the schools to notify parents of students in the high school and middle school that classes were dismissed on Wednesday, April 16, after officials received the news of student Josh Willis’ death.

But some parents didn’t get the message.

LaTonya Williams of Artis Street, who has a child at the high school, was home all day on April 16 but didn’t get a call at her home or on her cell phone. She said both numbers were listed with the schools as contact numbers.

“I was informed by my child; she and my son were close to Josh. She was upset and called me to see if she could come home.”

The mother said she received that call from her daughter before 10 a.m. According to central office records, the reverse 911 calls went out about 10:48 a.m.

Williams said she didn’t contact anyone at the schools about the situation, because she wasn’t aware that the reverse 911 message had even gone out to parents.

“I don’t fault them for letting everyone know that a classmate had passed,” she said. “I just think they could’ve waited until the end of the day. It upset everybody.”

Sherita Bryant of Hall Street said she also didn’t receive a call about school closing.

“My sister is here during the day, and (the schools) usually call my cell or work number anyway.”

She said that her son, who attends the middle school, was home that day any way, so she did not have to leave work to go pick him up.

Principal Samuel Jones said he wasn’t aware that the notifications were going to go out to parents via the alert system.

“The central office handled all of that,” he said. “I wasn’t aware of it until later that day when I received a printout (of the report).”

Jones, who was formerly with the Suffolk City Public Schools, which had a similar system, said it is a good system.

“It is a good way to improve communications with all parents and families,” he said.

Jonathan Lackey, network administrator with the City of Franklin and Franklin City Public Schools, said he was across town when he was notified that the calls needed to go out to the parents.

It took about an hour for him to get back to the office and set up the system.

“I logged onto the student information system and exported it from there,” he explained.

“Then I put it into a text file so it could be imported into the Reverse 911 system.

After getting the list of students and converting the file to a format that is user-friendly to the reverse 911 system, Lackey noted that some numbers in the database lacked area codes.

Area codes are required for the public-alert system.

He updated those numbers as quickly as possible and typed in the message that the high and middle schools would be closed “to accommodate the grief of the students and faculty over the death of a very fine student at Franklin High School.”

It also stated that the elementary school would remain open and announcements would be made that afternoon about the status of the schools for following two days.

After being approved by the superintendent, the message went out to the names on the list.

Records show that the two schools combined have 696 students.

Lackey said, “It called 552 families. It weeds out duplicate (phone numbers and addresses).”

The report shows that of the 552 families called, 220 calls went to answering machines, 85 lines were busy and five produced a fax tone. Nine were intercepted by an operator, which meant the numbers were no longer in service, and 36 timed out, which meant no one answered nor did the message go to an answering machine. In addition, 197 calls were successful.

“The call went out within an hour,” Lackey said. “I think that’s reasonable. The kids also had the opportunity to call their parents from the schools.

“If we hadn’t had the system in place, no one would have had that information.”

Gina Hancock, director of technology, said, “It’s a wonderful system. Overall, it worked great.

“The system is doing what it is designed to do.”

She noted that the school system was in the process of verifying phone numbers.

“We are also taking steps to automate the exports (information),” she said. “We can’t export the data and have it on hand. We need to export new information, because numbers change, providers change.

“It has to be at the last minute for the most up-to-date information.”

Lackey had heard of one call from a parent who said that they got a message, but it started halfway into the message.

He said that all answering machines do not work the same, and that technicians at reverse 911 told him to “combat the problem, the message will play twice.”

He said if the answering machine only allows for a short message, some folks may not have received it in its entirety.

“I was also told that other products can prevent people from getting a call,” Lackey said.

“If someone has a box that intercepts telemarketing calls, it impersonates an operator and sends a tone to the 911 system that says, ‘Don’t call me any more.’

“The system thinks the number is unavailable.”

The reverse 911 system can make 16 calls per minute, depending on length of message and how long it takes for calls to be answered.