Rick Kaufman walked onto the Columbine High School campus about 15 minutes after the shooting started there in 1999.
When a pair of students killed 13 people, it was his job to tell parents what was happening. Or to try, anyway. He was the communications director for Jefferson County Schools.
"The cell coverage was wiped out within minutes of the attack because of the telephone calls that were coming in -- not only from local, but it also began to expand," recalled Kaufman. "t really mushroomed. All of our phone systems got knocked out."
Parents could only wait at police barricades or watch the scene unfold on CNN.
"For us, the ability to communicate to parents, other than relying on the media, was very difficult because cell phones were down," Kaufman added. "Local lines were down, and we really didn't have anyone to be sending paper home, or children home with information."
Kaufman has brought that hard lesson to Bloomington's public schools, where he's now the new director of community relations.
Kaufman recently signed up the district for a system that can send alerts by e-mail and text messages, even call parents' cell phones. The service costs $3 per student per year, and cuts the time to contact parents from as much as 16 hours to just 12 minutes.
Officials in Delaware recently used a mass notification system to tell parents and students to wash their hands more during a drug-resistant staph outbreak in a middle school.
“We looked for a system that would allow us to circumvent telephone lines, cell phone lines, anything that would cut off our ability to communicate.”Rick Kaufman, Bloomington school district
"A few years back, schools basically only had access to a home phone number for a parent," said Karla Lemmon, a spokeswoman for Honeywell, which sells a mass notification service for schools, colleges and businesses. "Now parents have cell phones, they have e-mail, they have pagers and they're reachable wherever they are. People aren't always at home or always at their desk, getting a telephone call."
Lemmon said Honeywell began developing the notification system five years ago, after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"It was really born out of 9/11 and the experiences of our employees," said Lemmon. "We had, obviously, many employees out on the East Coast, and their children were basically put on lockdown in the schools, but the parents weren't being given any information. They couldn't get to their children. They didn't know what was going on at the schools, if their children were even safe."
And while Hibbing, Minn., isn't likely to be the setting for a terrorist attack, schools there got a new mass-notification system from California-based Connect-Ed last fall.
"We're always conscious of something bad happening," said Hibbing superintendent Robert Beluzzo.
But he says that's not the only reason his district adopted the system.
"When we looked at a planned notification system, it's more than just emergencies," said Beluzzo. "We see it as a valuable tool for communicating with parents in non-emergency situations -- anything from reminders of testing, to reminders of other important events happening around the school that we want to notify parents about."
In the Twin Cities metro area, both Wayzata and White Bear Lake schools recently signed up for the Honeywell service. The company keeps contact information on secure remote servers, and schools access the system through the Web.
White Bear Lake is using the the system to help reach parents who don't speak English at home.
Bloomington's Rich Kaufman says even routine communications can help during a crisis, if parents lose contact with their children.
He says a being able to summon buses, or tell parents where to wait for their kids, would have helped put parents at ease at Columbine, after regular channels of communication broke down.
"We looked for a system that would allow us to circumvent telephone lines, cell phone lines, anything that would cut off our ability to communicate," said Kaufman.
Honeywell serves about 1 million students nationwide, and Connect-Ed about 10 million.