Getting the Message

Your alert system can do more than inform employees during emergencies.

Business continuity, continuity of operations, and contingency planning are now everyday concepts. Crises both natural and manmade have forced businesses to recognize that preserving life and property must actively be a top priority. Recognizing the need for all organizations to communicate instantly and reliably during critical circumstances, Congress in July 2008 directed the Department of Homeland Security to develop the first National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP). This, in addition to industry-specific regulations such as NASD 3510/NYSE 446, JCAHO 2.4, and other highly visible initiatives, have pushed emergency communications and interoperability into the forefront of budgets and planning.

Even without mandates, companies recognize the potential liability. Events such as the Mumbai terrorist attacks, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina have therefore also promoted a sense of urgency and a need to foster responsiveness. Organizations of all scopes are seeking to capitalize on technological advancements in order to improve their continuity and emergency communications practices.

Communication is Key
The ability to communicate is central to any successful continuity response. In our increasingly mobile environment, technology is at the fingertips of businesses, organizations, and institutions wherever they exist or go. Devices such as cell phones, BlackBerry smart phones, and laptops allow people to have constant access to information. For many, these on-ramps to new media have supplanted traditional media, including radio and television, when it comes to gathering time-sensitive news and information.

Mass notification service providers have recognized this shift and are using modern communication tools to push critical information rapidly via BlackBerrys, PDAs, cell phones, and traditional phones quickly and directly, without recipients having to request the information. Multimodal mass messaging systems can operate to the highest available efficiency in any given situation, including those in which some portion of the communications infrastructure may be degraded or inoperable.

Our company validated this value in February 2008 at a Wal-Mart store in Prattville, Ala. When an F-3 tornado struck this small Alabama community, Wal-Mart was able with our help to send advance weather warnings via text, e-mail, and voice to store management. This helped to ensure that employees and customers alike were prepared when the tornado touched down. Because the alerts were generated automatically well in advance of the tornado, Wal-Mart employees had ample time to remove shopping carts from the parking lot, close the loading docks, and generally batten down the hatches. This ensured the store took the least damage it could. Much more importantly, our rapid distribution of advance alerts helped the staff to move people to secure shelter and to ensure no lives were lost.

Simple, Scalable Solution
Many organizations have found that an on-demand, Web-based mass notification service that is designed with the scale, resiliency, and safety of an enterprise system allows organizations to tap all the benefits of instant, two-way mass communication, without having to undertake the expense of implementing and maintaining an on-premise notification system. Software as a service (SaaS) can mean that customers do not need to purchase, install, maintain, or upgrade any dedicated hardware or software. Customers can simply use a Web browser, activating the service by phone or via a Black- Berry software client.

Additionally, this user-friendly platform requires minimal training—really, the key skills take minutes to learn, and the service takes only seconds to activate. A specifically tailored UI (User Interface) can reflect every customer’s preferences and needs. So within minutes, any customer can generate hundreds of thousands of voice and text messages to anywhere in the world. This communications platform is extremely scalable, allowing for the rapid addition of both customers and broadcast capacity.

Data management and communication planning are also key to an effective mass notification system. As part of acquiring this ability to send out thousands of email messages and phone calls in a matter of seconds, an organization should consider questions such as how many phone calls the organization’s PBXs can handle, what type of bandwidth is needed to support receipt of an e-mail blast, etc. The organization should invest legitimate time in the research and planning phases of implementing its emergency alert solution in order to achieve the best results and not cause its own local infrastructure crisis when urgent circumstances arise.

Another part of planning and preparedness is testing. Testing the system will help an organization work out any minor issues, as well as confirm the currency and effectiveness of its registered contact information. At the same time, organizations should not over-test their emergency alert systems because this could desensitize recipients. Take the University of Delaware, for example, which currently tests its system once per term. This helps the university remain well adjusted against the significant student turnover between semesters.

For Emergencies and Beyond
Many organizations are finding that their mass notification systems’ capabilities benefit them beyond the emergency-only paradigm. In fact, an alerting and response service is not just an affordable, but actually a cost-efficient way to conduct important business communications. Roughly 30 percent of our customers use the notification service for daily, time-sensitive situations because it is inexpensive, highly reliable, fast, and auditable.

Emergency situations will never go away. While we all hope to become better able to handle what we hope will be fewer and fewer crises, even something as pedestrian as a faster-paced business world and its competitive need for ever-increasing productivity suggests on-demand, high-speed, two-way alerting will become a staple, not an anachronism. The ability for any organization to communicate better and faster with its members, either during genuine emergencies or “business emergencies,” will always add value and improve results.

This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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