Saved by the Bell – Large California School District Implements InformaCast

One of California’s largest school districts chose an IP telecom system to boost its schools’ safety, but discovered many other benefits.

Appearing in EdTech K-12

Story by Julie Sturgeon, Photo by Max S Gerber

As principal at Chaparral High School, Lucia Washburn no longer dreads lockdowns.

Each year, the Grossmont Union High School District requires each facility to conduct two such emergency drills. Officials sound a special alarm, and students must get to the nearest room that has a door or that locks. Teachers practice keeping students safe in that secure space, and the El Cajon police officers check every room to make sure the campus is secure. The entire process lasts an average of 10 minutes — but for Washburn, it was 10 minutes of frustration because her building had no public address system. Instead, she communicated with teachers over telephone speakers.

“If the class was a bit loud, they couldn’t hear anything,” she notes.

Jack BlaylockIn the fall of 2005, Jack Blaylock, director of technical serv­ices at this San Diego, Calif.-area district, selected Chaparral to investigate a new IP telecom system under consideration. Singlewire (formerly Berbee) billed its InformaCast product as a robust, full-featured system that allows users to simultaneously push an audio stream and/or a text message to multiple Internet Protocol phones and speakers. The Madison, Wis., manufacturer originally built the system for the Department of Commerce after personnel there found themselves banging on doors on 9/11 in an effort to evacuate a building without loudspeakers.

Of course, Blaylock wasn’t willing to invest in new switches, speakers and software for one building; he had a bigger challenge on his hands. The 19 campuses in this high school district handed him a mixed bag of four or five different notification systems. “Some of it, I don’t know if there’s a brand name on it because it goes back 50 years [to] when the school was built,” he says.

The variety alone meant a lot of downtime for the maintenance department as it struggled to stock the right parts to keep each independent intercom system, bell scheme and clock working. And then it was nearly impossible to keep any two clocks within a high school in sync with each other — one class would pack up early waiting on the bell while another was caught by surprise. “They were all in really bad shape, so it was the prime time to catch up with the standards,” Blaylock reports. “IP basically rolled all three areas into one.”

Today, the announcement system is an enterprise that allows users to contact any combination of schools simultaneously. Because each intercom carries an IP address, officials narrow their message as specifically as the math department at one, two, three or all the high schools.

“Anyone with the code can make an emergency broadcast from any telephone in the school,” Blaylock notes. Users can also send a text-only update flagged by an unobtrusive audible alert, so administrators can sidestep starting a schoolwide panic over the speakers, says Ken Bywaters, director of voice products at Singlewire.

IP Telecom Made Sense

Grossmont Union High School District began converting to an IP structure in 2000, starting with phones and then adding security cameras. Because Blaylock built the network using Optical Carrier OS3s between the school and his servers, bandwidth wasn’t an issue. “It made it very easy, when a product like this came along, to put it on our network,” he says. “We didn’t have to go out and buy a bunch of equipment and make a drastic change. It was just a matter of adding more ports.”

The district also had another advantage already in place. Back in 1990, administrators ran fiber underground between the buildings to avoid shutting down entire campuses in case of lightning strikes, electrical surges and other problems. It has enhanced the infrastructure over time, running new fibers for faster speed on the data network, and reducing as many as 10 conduits to four.

Still, architects working on building renovations relied on yesterday’s features from names they already knew — Dukane, Rauland-Borg — to create the bid specifications. They were solid products, Blaylock knew from his research, but in the end the district would wind up paying for duplicate features using that route. For instance, the IP phones covered the same needs as a two-way intercom system did.

“And you still had to go to the local call box and have wires run to the cabinet,” he says. Those wires usually ran along the roof, where Mother Nature rotted away the elements. Blaylock estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of the analog speakers in some of his schools no longer work.

So what Singlewire suggested was tempting, “but it was new,” he adds. “What if it doesn’t do everything it says it will? What’s the turnaround on parts if something breaks? How quickly can we get service to it here on the West Coast?” played like a drumbeat in his head. He called a colleague at Rialto (Calif.) Unified School District whom he knew through the California Educational Technology Professional Association for a heart-to-heart conversation on the district’s satisfaction with InformaCast, and decided it was at least worth a pilot test at Chaparral.

The system’s cost was an issue for Blaylock. “The speakers were more expensive than I’m used to paying. But even when you took that price and the licensing fees and add it all together versus the infrastructure costs to go with the traditional system, I was out in front. Once we had some of those numbers put together, it started making more and more sense.”

Testing … One, Two, Three

On the other hand, Grossmont Union did need to make a few up-front network investments. True, the district already enjoyed Optical Carrier 3s’ 155-megabits-per-second lines running between the school campuses and Blaylock’s department at the district’s headquarters. But because it built its IP network more than five years ago, it met 5e standards that have changed when it comes to switching for Power Over Ethernet. In a nutshell, Blaylock needed to purchase one new Cisco switch to run power ports to the equipment. Happily, the InformaCast system needs no electrical plug because it is fed right from the data switch.

The initial installation was a no-brainer. The district had two possibilities to choose from: set a server at the site or run the entire operation from the district headquarters. Blaylock chose the first because “if anything happens at the office, you don’t want to take down everyone’s communication system. When you get more than 10 schools wide, you don’t want headquarters to be the weak point,” he says. So he bought an enterprise license from Berbee, set up a server at Chaparral, installed the InformaCast software, and then tied that server back to his main server.

His team spent a week getting the hardware into place and then another month fine-tuning the configurations and adjusting speaker volumes in each classroom. And after the initial configuration, the clocks suddenly quit. Turns out, the IT department assumed the settings rather than seeking the manufacturer’s recommendations, which caused a problem in the software. Thankfully, the proper configurations righted the gaffe.

Blaylock admits the next rollout should be faster now that they’ve worked out these bugs, although other high schools will offer a challenge — to amplify football fields and other outdoor areas that 350-student Chaparral High School doesn’t offer.

Since then, school administrators have made their own tweaks. They prerecorded the lockdown message so that if they’re ever in the midst of a real emergency, Washburn can activate it by pushing two phone buttons.

Police department feedback during lockdowns resulted in Chaparral posting periodic updates during the drill to give teachers a sense of what’s happening outside their darkened classrooms. During spring break in 2007, the local SWAT team used Chaparral as a training ground for its officers, and suggested school administrators run the emergency announcement on a continuous loop.

IP allowed them to incorporate everyone’s advice with ease. According to Blaylock, schools can program an entire year’s worth of class dismissal bells and drills online in one sitting. Changing a date is no more complicated than using an e-mail program, in his opinion — just log into the software, type the change and close the program. Washburn is of a different mind. Using the system to make an announcement is “super simple” in her experience, but as a nontechnical person, she votes for a training session to get users comfortable with the change order process.

But even easy isn’t fail proof, as Washburn learned when a fire broke out in the high school’s kitchen in the fall of 2005. The principal wanted to inform students the fire department was on its way and maintain updates throughout the drama, but instead accidentally tapped into the phone system’s Muzak loop, playing elevator music to the waiting teens.

“Which, of course, is the worst music they could hear,” she laughs. Washburn made up for it by using the IP telecom to pipe Pirates of the Caribbean music throughout the building during a special celebration this spring.

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