Improve Your School’s Communications with System Consolidation

Today’s communications systems seamlessly combine loudspeakers, clocks, bells, LED signage, flashing strobes, text-based messages, and more.

Improve Your School’s Communications with System Consolidation

Image via Adobe, by GoodIdeas

Schools nationwide begin their morning with a series of bells or alarms alerting students that classes will begin soon or have already started. Following the bells, announcements broadcast via the school’s public address (PA) system provide students with the latest news, including updates on the daily cafeteria menu or a reminder about Friday’s homecoming football game. K-12 campuses use this same technology when incidents occur to broadcast information about the incident and provide instructions.

Many U.S. schools have used their communications technology daily for more than a decade. But in recent years, school communications technology has come a long way, particularly given its importance in threat situations. Many in experts in law enforcement and school security believe the public address system is the most crucial technology a K-12 campus owns when there is an active threat.

Schools with audio communications systems older than 10 years need to be aware of the advances made to the technology. The latest modern communications not only deliver far greater capabilities than their predecessors, they are also becoming increasingly integrated, providing multiple operational benefits.

Campus Communications Are Usually Comprised of Many Technologies

All schools require technology to communicate with visitors on campus. With the rise in threats at schools across the country, some districts and schools continue to operate today with archaic equipment, some decades old. This technology, while operational, may have limited capabilities by today’s standards and, worse, poor audio, which only increases the potential for people to be unable to hear instructions clearly if and when an incident occurs.

The typical 10-year-old school communication system includes several components. There is the microphone station that’s often installed in the main office. The microphone connects to an audio delivery system and loudspeakers throughout the campus. In older installations, schools may have limited the number of loudspeakers installed on the property to keep costs down.

The school bell system is yet another separate system, as are the clocks installed throughout campus to inform and keep students, faculty, and staff on schedule. Schools also have a standalone fire alarm system, which, yet again, has unique-sounding alarms and includes separate flashers installed near audible alarms. Flashers are also especially important for the hearing impaired, who may be unable to hear a fire alarm or bell. In recent years, many schools have installed text-based communication reader boards for the hearing impaired in certain higher traffic areas to meet Americans with Disability Act (ADA) requirements. Most older PA and bell systems were installed, operated, and serviced separately, and likely built by different vendors.

With communications systems now viewed as central to a school’s emergency communications approach, various funding programs are available at both the federal and state levels to purchase new audio equipment.

Today’s Integrated Systems Accelerate School Communications

Modern school communications systems offer more integrated technology and automation features today that simplify a school’s operations and can help increase the speed of communication. Primary campus audio systems can now easily integrate multiple products from different vendors into a single digital dashboard controlled by a computer or tablet. These systems connect to the school’s main IT network, and individual products installed throughout the school connected via Ethernet cabling are visible to school IT teams.

A single piece of hardware can now handle multiple tasks. For instance, a single unit now can have an LED display show the time and date or a text-based message, a built-in loudspeaker, a two-way talk-back microphone, and a built-in flasher.

These units also come in various sizes or forms for specific uses, including smaller units for a classroom or larger sizes with larger LEDs and loudspeakers for a bigger space like a gymnasium. Form factors are particularly important now as schools can choose a product for a particular space.

Most importantly, whereas older systems require a person to make announcements from a single location, such as the main office, modern systems allow administrators to initiate communications from a mobile device anywhere on campus. Mobile accessibility is far more desirable during an emergency. An authorized staff member can activate the system from the parking lot, hallway, or playground with a cascading set of automated actions that the schools set up, including notifying first responders and making live or initiating pre-recorded announcements through the PA system.

Newer systems can also integrate with mobile silent panic buttons in accordance with Alyssa’s Law or send automated mobile emergency notifications via text to law enforcement, staff and students instantly. This technology helps people on campus respond faster and law enforcement to mobilize and get to the scene more rapidly.

Although local fire codes require schools to install fire alarms separately, the fire alarms can be integrated into modern communication systems and automatically activate pre-programmed announcements and messaging when a fire alarm occurs.

Involve Many Stakeholders When Planning Your System

School communications systems need to work every day, without fail. When evaluating technology, school IT and AV teams should huddle with as many teams as possible, from administrators, law enforcement and even the school board to discuss needs. While some WiFi-based communications systems are available today, hardwired systems are generally more stable and reliable.

Schools today have access to funding, and district administrators can get creative when budgeting for modern emergency communications systems. They can be categorized as a safety and security-related cost, or because they connect via the same network as a school’s IT system, they can also be considered an IT cost.

Improving a school’s communication system offers schools numerous benefits, particularly during emergencies. Modern systems help schools operate more efficiently and help deliver messages more effectively and faster. In a crisis, speed is vital. The faster schools can activate an emergency response system and guide staff and students on what to do or where to go, the safer a school will be.

Michael Peveler is vice president of sales at AtlasIED.

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