In the Eye of a Hurricane

Hurricane Sandy reached land the week of Oct. 26, 2012, and was the largest hurricane to ever hit the mid-Atlantic and eastern shore of the United States. Some areas were without power for 13 days or longer once the storm was in full force. With power outages and sporadic cell phone service common, finding a reliable way to communicate with people to ensure safety was perhaps the biggest challenge many organizations and public entities faced.

Power outages affected the ability to send and receive e-mail and phone calls, while sporadic cell phone service compromised text messages and phone calls. Telephone line issues meant landline phones couldn’t be relied on either. Because organizations could not depend on any one specific communication channel, a mass notification system's ability to contact people on multiple devices simultaneously became vitally important.

Throughout the storm, mass notification services installed in schools, cities, businesses, and other organizations were used in a variety of ways -- and for a variety of purposes -- to help organizations deliver notifications to ensure that people were informed and safe.

Novartis Remains Productive
In addition to using mass notification for sending information to ensure employees' safety, Novartis, a health care solutions provider, used the service during the storm to maintain employee productivity.

Headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, Novartis has a campus in New Jersey comprised of more than 30 buildings across 180 acres, plus off-site leased buildings. Novartis' first goal was to ensure employee safety by offering information on shelter, showers, phone-charging stations, and fuel availability. For employees who were safe and able to work, Novartis' next goal was to keep them productive by providing information on work locations.

During Sandy, the leased buildings at Novartis experienced power outages and were closed right after the hurricane hit shore, while most of the other campus buildings were open for work. Novartis sent alert messages by business unit and building, so only the people who needed information regarding power outages or closures received them.

The message from Novartis offered employees the option to work from home or use "hotel" spaces on the main campus. All told, Novartis sent 122,000 individual messages during Sandy.

"Employees love the system," said Scott Thompson, director of security engineering for Novartis. "It isn't intended to replace emails and other tools for day-to-day communications, so we use it sparingly, only during emergencies to ensure that people pay attention when a notification is pushed out."

To ensure that as many employees as possible are contacted by the service, all employees' user names, emails, and work phone numbers are preloaded into the database for the technology. Employees are then asked to log in and add personal cell numbers, home phone numbers, and SMS addresses. To date, more than 90 percent of employees participate in the company's alerting system.

During Hurricane Irene in 2011, the connection to the command center based on campus was lost; however, because the service is cloud-based, Scott Thompson was still able to send messages about closures from his home. During Hurricane Sandy, Thompson was evacuated to another state and again was able to access the service remotely and communicate critical information to Novartis employees.

School Achieves Fast Set-Up
At the Caldwell-West Caldwell School District in New Jersey, Dr. James Heinegg had taken the reins as superintendent in July 2012. One of his first orders of business was selecting a notification service to ensure the safety of the district's 2,650 students, 230 teachers, and 225 administrators and support staff in seven buildings. The district made its pick in September 2012 with a goal of getting the service up and running by Thanksgiving. But the late-October forecast announced the imminent arrival of Hurricane Sandy, and the need became immediate.

Thanks to quick work between the district and its technology partner, the software was customized and contact details populated within 24 hours -- just two days before Sandy hit. While the district believed it would only be used to close school Monday and Tuesday after Sandy hit, it turned into a vital daily communication tool. Caldwell used the service 20 times over two weeks to keep parents and staff informed and students safe.

"Without the notification technology, much of the district's communication would have been done via phone chain or call tree, which would have been problematic," said Heinegg.

Call trees become unstable if one person in the tree is unable to reach out to their assigned contacts. In addition, most landline phones today need a power source to operate, so if the power failed, people may have been unable to receive calls. Likewise, cell phones require cell tower service, which was patchy after the storm. All of these situations would have caused a call tree failure, so being able to reach parents and guardians via multiple modes of communication became essential to ensure reliable delivery of messages.

Caldwell first used the notification service during Sandy to let people know about school closings but quickly realized it could be a valuable tool to send reminders about curfews and to encourage parents and guardians to keep their kids away from school grounds due to safety issues related to downed power lines and debris in the streets.

In addition to school announcements, Caldwell sent messages on behalf of local government. While the local government had its own notification system and distribution list, administrators wanted to make sure as many people knew about power outages as possible. They recognized the effectiveness of the district's service and asked Caldwell to send community messages, as well.

Township Requires Speed, Flexibility
When Jefferson Township, located in Morris County, N.J., went through Hurricane Irene in October 2011, officials there set up shelters and warming centers for residents and communicated about them via road-side message boards and the township's website. Jefferson's shelters were open for up to five days but had only about 150 visitors. Post-Irene, the township realized it needed to communicate more effectively with citizens and decided to install an alert system for the city and its residents.

Throughout Hurricane Sandy, Jefferson used the alert system 34 times for a total distribution of 125,000 alerts. The first order of business was ensuring the security of citizens, so during the storm a morning message addressed safety and encouraged people to check on neighbors, the elderly, and people with special needs. Evening messages focused on where to locate comfort stations, and where to get water and find additional information.

The township accommodated 2,300 comfort station visitors during Sandy. Of those visitors, 75 percent learned about the shelter through the alert system. Approximately 1,800 residents had registered for the service at the start of the storm. Community Emergency Response Team members at the comfort stations enlisted additional residents for future alerts and added nearly 1,100 people.

Today, Jefferson Township has 3,000 of its 6,000 residents registered to receive emergency messages. People who register for the service can list their addresses, so if township officials chose to, they could use map-based alerting to specific geographic areas for situations such as a neighborhood evacuation or an isolated power outage.

During the storm, 93 percent of the township was without power, at which point residents started installing generators. This resulted in numerous calls to the fire department regarding carbon monoxide alarms in homes. Alerts were sent to residents asking them to move generators away from their homes, and the calls dramatically decreased.

When police headquarters also lost power and had no Internet or phone connections during Sandy, Ed Mangold, deputy office of emergency management coordinator for Jefferson Township, N.J., was able to send alerts from his laptop at a remote location.

More Than Meets the Eye
Mass notification has proven valuable in helping schools warn students and staff of weather hazards and building closings. However, there is great potential to customize and expand the use of these services to help with disaster recovery and coordination of rescue workers. With notification services, any type of organization can keep its people -- from staff to parents to community members -- better informed, safe, and motivated during difficult situations.

Posted by Karla Lemmon on Jun 24, 2013

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