I was sitting in the movie theater when my cell phone rang. It was on vibrate, and it didn’t disturb anyone near me. I pulled it out, silenced it, and glanced at the caller ID. It was our school district’s emergency notification system. That’s bad. Something’s wrong. When I listened to the message, I learned that one of our high school students had died unexpectedly the night before. This was a notification to staff that we were going to be in crisis mode on Monday. There would be a faculty meeting before school. Counselors would be on site to talk with students. It was important for us to know what was going on before arriving Monday morning.
We started using an emergency notification system four years ago. The idea is to rapidly notify administrators, staff members, and parents in the event of a school emergency or weather-related cancellation. If school is closed due to weather, or students are going to be delayed getting home, or we have a utility emergency at a building, or there’s a bomb threat or other serious security concern, we want to quickly provide our school community with accurate information as quickly as possible. That’s what this system is for.
So when I look at the caller ID on my phone and see the number of the emergency notification system, I know that something’s wrong. This is not going to be a normal day. I can trust that the information I’m going to hear will be important and relevant to me.
But we tend to overuse these things. On Saturday morning, we were in the car when my wife’s phone rang. It was the emergency notification system for our daughter’s school. They wanted to remind us that the PTA is having a fundraiser. If we didn’t happen to see the countless notes that had already come home about it, if we had missed the discussion of it at the PTA meeting, if we hadn’t seen it on the web site, they just thought they’d call on Saturday morning and remind us of this opportunity to support the school.
What is the reaction, then, when a parent looks at the caller ID and sees the emergency notification number for my daughter’s school? There’s an eye-roll, a sigh. What do they want to remind me about this time? They still have to listen to the message. After all, it could be a real emergency. But the sense of urgency is gone.
When we cry too often about the sky falling, people stop paying attention. We don’t notice things that are familiar to us. That’s why students don’t take fire drills seriously. Most will have more than 100 fire drills while they’re in school, but very few (thankfully) will ever see a real fire in a school. So they become complacent. That happened my first year teaching. We had a regular fire drill on Monday. On Tuesday, a student pulled the fire alarm between classes. On Wednesday, a different student pulled the alarm during a lunch period. So when the alarm went off on Thursday, we heard, “are you kidding?” “Not again.” The students weren’t in a hurry. The teachers weren’t in a hurry. Everyone was annoyed, until we opened the classroom door and found the hall full of smoke. Then it became real again.
So I haven’t signed up for emergency notifications from my kids’ schools. I have plenty of spam in by e-mail. I don’t need it in my voicemail, too. If there’s a real emergency and they need to tell me something, a real person is going to have to call me. I hope the school district I work in doesn’t make the same mistakes with our system.