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AlertNow gets mixed reviews first time out

February 08, 2007|by ERIN CUNNINGHAM

HAGERSTOWN - Washington County Public Schools canceled classes because of snow Wednesday, but more than half of the phone numbers listed on a new alert system did not receive calls notifying residents of the closure.

The school system's AlertNow Rapid Communication Service experienced computer glitches when it was used for an emergency alert for the first time, and only 35 percent to 45 percent of phone numbers on the list were called, school officials said.

The school system paid $25,000 for one year of the service, which is capable of delivering tens of thousands of voice or text messages to telephones and other devices within minutes.

Mike Markoe, acting assistant to the superintendent, said he was not sure how many telephone numbers were called Wednesday, but he said the messages went out at about 6 a.m.

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"It's a start," Markoe said. "We certainly want to raise that percentage (of successful calls) considerably and make sure we're reaching those parents. We have a ways to go."

At least 14,700 families have phone numbers included in the AlertNow system, which can send messages to parents countywide or in a particular school or community. During an emergency, a call can go out to every number a parent has listed, including home, work and cell phone contacts.

Markoe said he had not received any feedback by Wednesday afternoon about the morning calls.

"We are going to improve each time we use (AlertNow)," he said.

Markoe said officials anticipated some glitches with the schools closure notice, since it was just the second countywide message sent with AlertNow since the introductory call by Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan last week.

Markoe said AlertNow worked effectively Tuesday when it was used by administrators at Smithsburg High School to tell parents about an incident at school that day.

"That was a really good success," Markoe said. "I would say that was a better success than (Wednesday) morning. That went really well (Tuesday). We gave out accurate information to piggyback on a letter that was sent home."

Markoe said that making sure accurate telephone numbers are being used is important to the system's success, Markoe said. The glitch experienced Wednesday was caused by a number of zeroes being included in the list of phone numbers, he said.

"We still think it's going to be a great system," Markoe said. "But we're going to have to work through these glitches."

Officials have said that AlertNow is an additional method of communication and will not replace other alerts like local media, the school system's Web site and letters used to communicate with parents.

"We're continually working to improve it and make it the best system possible," Markoe said.

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