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Best Practices in Emergency Alerting

One of the best options for effective emergency communications is a multi-modal notification system that incorporates an institution's existing modes of communications with newer technologies, such as mobile phones.

Emergency incidents are an unfortunate reality in the workplace. And because today’s workforce is often spread across multiple, remote locations, it is often difficult to ensure effective communication during an emergency – a time when every second counts. Institutions must be prepared to respond quickly to a broad range of events that can interrupt daily operations – everything from acts of nature to those perpetrated by an individual. Newspaper headlines are filled with stories about organizations that were unable to effectively respond to and manage a crisis, underscoring the high cost of being unprepared. To avoid similar outcomes, CIOs and security professionals must ask themselves, “Which is the best method of communication for my organization? Do I implement a PA system, install emergency phones, deploy mobile safety solutions?” One of the best options for effective emergency communications is a multi-modal notification system that incorporates an institution’s existing modes of communications with newer technologies, such as mobile phones. In fact, integrating multi-modal mobile safety procedures has become a top priority for many workplace security leaders.

Maximizing Multi-modal Alerting Options
When developing an effective, multi-modal alerting strategy, it is important to understand your infrastructure’s capabilities. The line capacity constraints of existing PBXs can impede the quick delivery voice alerts to landline phones. Additionally, many individuals in your workforce may not be resident within the office. A better strategy is to prioritize audiences and to utilize the preferred and optimum communication vehicle for each group of recipients.

Consider these fundamental questions to identify the emergency communications procedures that are best suited for your organization:

  • What internal and external audience do you need to communicate with during an emergency?
  • How should you prioritize these constituents with respect to how quickly each should be reached?
  • How much detail and what type of information does each audience require?
  • Can you effectively deliver emergency messages within the confines of your existing infrastructure?

Upon determining these answers, the next step is to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the available modes of communication and which best meet the needs of your various audiences.

For example, SMS alerts are the ideal solution for reaching employees who you simply need to keep out of harms way and updated as a situation unfolds. Assuming you’ve selected a proven, reliable alerting technology, text SMS alerts, compared to email and voicemail, deliver the fastest performance and highest throughput. They can reach tens of thousands of individuals within minutes via cell phone or smartphones, which employees nearly always have in their possession. In addition, mass SMS alerts require very little “bandwidth” and therefore won’t overtax your telecommunications system.

On the other hand, security personnel, who have increased responsibilities during an emergency, may require notifications systems that enable richer information and allow more substantial two-way communications. This can be achieved through voice alerts, conference bridging, or even video alerts. Since your security personnel are fewer in number than your entire workforce, the increased network capacity required to deliver more complex media alerts is likely still well within your system’s overall capabilities.

Planning for an Emergency
An emergency situation can involve a spectrum of people so it is important to engage a broad working group in the planning process. Select an emergency response manager and then clearly identify who will take “ownership” of the different types of emergency scenarios. Clear lines of responsibility and communication must be determined ahead of time. During times of chaos, different people tend to get pulled into the decision making process, causing further confusion. Institutions that identify their emergency team, each participant's role and a clear chain of authority ahead of time are much better prepared to respond effectively. Some key constituents that should be included in an emergency preparedness council or working group include:

  • Security personnel
  • Management team
  • Human Resources
  • Building owners/landlords
  • PR/communications
  • Information Technology
  • Local community law enforcement and emergency responders

Once the working group is in place, analyze your current preparedness plan to assess its strengths and limitations. What processes and policies are already in place? Where are the biggest gaps in planning and preparation? Organizations that have successfully stepped back and taken a cross-functional, holistic look at existing procedures often discover threats not previously identified and realize their plans and procedures are woefully inadequate. Your situation assessment should also carefully consider what resources are available to you – manpower, technology and external resources – so they can be maximized or revised as needed.

Once a comprehensive situation assessment is complete, it’s time to test your procedures. Putting an emergency communications plan into action can be a challenging task as it involves cross-functional cooperation. In addition, processes that were thought to be easily implemented can become confusing and difficult during times of crisis. The notification system you chose, however, should be intuitive & help guide you through the alert creation and distribution process. A few simple best practices can make a significant difference.

  • Define acceptable terms for emergency mass communications. Use unambiguous language that will not cause confusion for your audience. Many institutions have created lexicons for emergency situations; leverage what others have created and modify them for your own use. Make sure you test any terms that are unique to your workforce with a handful of individuals who would actually receive the message. Things that seem clear to a group of administrators might be interpreted completely differently when shared with the masses.
  • Determine target audience(s) specifics. For effective crisis management, appropriate emergency messages, modes of communication, and priorities will vary for each audience. The first job of the crisis communications team is to contact the list of "need-to-knows" -- security, key administrators, and first responders. The individuals on this list may depend upon the specific situation. Establish when these key individuals will be contacted and what will they be told.
  • Consider implementing an inbound notification infrastructure. An effective mass notification system should enable inbound responses and provide a simple mechanism for reporting on and responding to those messages. In addition to a well-maintained informational web site, many institutions utilize toll-free information lines to steer call volume off site and effectively answer frequently asked questions.
  • Establish detailed approval processes. Different situations may require different constituencies to take responsibility for sending an alert. It is critical that an emergency response plan explicitly define ownership and processes for issuing alerts. At a minimum, identify principal alert senders who are permitted to send alerts without internal approval. Identifying and training individuals who have complete decision making authority can dramatically cut communication turn-around time.
  • Establish policies for the frequency and level of communication. In many cases, you will not have immediate access to all the details surrounding a crisis, yet your audiences can demand information. During planning, clearly identify rules that outline the frequency and level of communication you will provide. For example, will you offer updates every 30 minutes even if there is no new information or will you update employees only when new information becomes available? Set expectations both with the communications team and audiences in advance of the event.
  • Create message templates. Pre-created messaging templates can take much of the "fog of war" out of an incident. Turnkey messages with fill-in-the-blank dates, locations, and key details can be quickly edited and distributed. It is important that the created content be appropriate for each mode of communication. For example, an e-mail can and should contain much more descriptive content than the 160 available characters of a text message. A useful list of emergency message templates is available online from Margolis-Healy Consulting (www.margolis-healy.com).

Communicating Your Communications
A clearly defined plan is useless if your employees don't know about it. While there are normally effective and well-established procedures for communicating with first responders and administrators, getting the word to employees requires a more comprehensive marketing effort. In addition to informing employees about how information will be communicated during an emergency, it is important to practice -- periodically testing systems, processes, and people.

Where possible, involve as many constituents as possible and conduct different types of practice sessions -– first responders only, broader constituents, etc. Tests across the entire organization should be conducted at least semi-annually. An effective test should start with a hypothetical triggering condition (e.g., natural disaster, nearby shooting, or even a traffic incident to avoid), go through the first responder and mass notification process, and finish with an after-action review to identify and address any gap.

Unfortunately, the risks facing our organizations and the people in them are complex and only seem to increase in complexity over time. New approaches to emergency preparedness and emergency management are required to protect our employees from a progressively frightening network of threats. However, as we have seen, many, if not most, threats can be predicted and planned for through a comprehensive preparedness plan. While it's obviously impossible to foresee every event that might occur, it is entirely possible to build a practice that protects and prepares us for many of the trials that await us.

About the Author

Raju Rishi is the Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder of Rave Wireless, Inc. His long-standing career in software & telecommunications has afforded him a rich understanding of the complex relationships between wireless carriers, content providers, application providers and consumers, which he utilizes to oversee Rave’s strategy and marketing. Previously, Rishi was EVP Product Management & Strategy of Vettro and held executive positions at Avaya/Lucent/AT&T, where he was responsible for architecture, international R&D, product management, sales, and marketing for mobility & IP products. Rishi is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and four children.

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