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Responding to Real-World Disasters

Written by  Guy Miasnik March 23, 2011

Emergencies, by their nature, are unexpected. When a hurricane hits, a fire breaks out, an earthquake happens, a shooting takes place or any other catastrophe occurs, every second counts when undertaking an effective response. Network-centric emergency mass notification technology plays a significant role in protecting people affected by unforeseen events and helping them to respond to their respective crises.

In 2010, these IP-based mass notification systems were used during a number of real-world events such as the shootings at Fort Bliss and the University of Texas–Austin campus. These events have clearly demonstrated that emergency mass notification systems have worked as designed and helped to protect the individuals in those communities.

Pervasive mass notification technology has been applied to situations ranging delivering alerting capabilities to the U.S. military stationed at home and deployed abroad to helping the Coast Guard respond to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill effectively. Employing an existing IP network is the most efficient, cost-effective model for alert communications and management for any situation, large or small.

An important advantage of network-centric mass notification is that it uses numerous communications paths to reach people anywhere and anytime in case of an emergency. Notifications can be reliably sent from a desktop computer to multiple and redundant channels and devices such as an individual cell phone or a social networking site.

At Fort Bliss, the notification system enabled alerts to be communicated instantaneously over the computer network as well as by phone. The system worked successfully without error, according to the media.

In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, the U.S. Air Force used a mass alert to notify and account for 300,000 people to ensure the military knew their welfare and whereabouts, including their families. The benefits of the Air Force’s notification system includes the ability to send hundreds of thousands of alerts across virtually every channel in minutes, record responses for personnel accountability and enable first responder coordination.

The Coast Guard embraced network-centric emergency communications with a centralized server improved to account for the reception of messages and alerts by taking advantage of the way IP-based services such as e-mail and text messaging enable immediate replies. The Coast Guard can rapidly and reliably transmit targeted alerts in bulk to maritime partners and stakeholders. It also allows the Coast Guard to receive responses from alert recipients to support the Coast Guard’s multiple missions.

Third-Generation Mass Notification

Modern mass notification systems have come a long way from traditional first-generation passive alerting systems such as sirens and flashing lights. Innovative third-generation network-centric technology uses the power and reach of computer networks and the Internet to deliver emergency alerting capabilities far beyond existing traditional systems. Third-generation systems leverage existing IP networks to:

 

  • communicate emergency information rapidly to all connected devices;
  • integrate and unify disparate existing mass notification capabilities;
  • provide bi-directional communication, allowing collection of feedback from all personnel; and
  • achieve enterprise-level scalability and processes.

 

These third-generation network-centric emergency notification systems are currently being used to protect people and property in some of the most challenging environments in the world. IP-based emergency alerting supports security efforts by communicating the right information at the right time to ensure that organizations are able to support their missions during emergencies.

Leveraging an existing IP network for emergency mass notification offers significant advantages for organizations. These include:

  • Alerts can be tailored based on an individual’s role in an organization.
  • Alerts can be delivered to large, geographically dispersed populations quickly with a consistent message.
  • Alerts can leverage the network’s bi-directional capability for real-time delivery feedback to the operator as well as capture responses from the recipients.
  • Alerts can simultaneously be sent to a variety of devices, all from a single interface for unified notification.
  • Legacy alerting systems can be integrated with the IP interface so all alerting channels are managed centrally through a single system.

Mass Notification via Social Networking

The use of IP-based alerting in third-generation notification systems is an integral part of systems interoperability and connectivity ─ critical attributes for the widest possible reach of any message. These systems can leverage “IP aware media gateways,” such as Web sites (commercial, public, government), social networks (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) and other non-traditional channels.

Adoption of standards such as Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) can further aid with communication and getting the word out to the appropriate audience by incorporating information feeds from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and the National Weather Service.

The benefits of incorporating social networking in mass notification include:

-          Widespread use of social network channels by millions of people

-          Leverage resources that may already be used by the organization but currently handled separately

-          Achieve a consistent messaging with many other delivery channels

-          Address extended audience such as family members of direct audience (students, military personnel)

-           Simplify publishing and integrate into internal notification process/approval

-          Implement in a secure and authenticated manner

Social networks have undergone explosive growth during the last several years. Penetration and adoption in areas such as higher education and recently the Department of Defense (DoD) demand that they be incorporated in any mass alerting system. The after-action report on the Fort Hood shooting specifically cited the need to exploit social networks for reaching all personnel, including family members and dependents, during an emergency.

The presidential report on the response to pandemics also noted the importance of being able to exploit social networks as a communications channel when the timely dissemination of information is required.

Other benefits of network-centric emergency notification systems include the ability to communicate information regarding the best action to take – not just information about the impending situation. So, in addition to sending the situation alert, the capability exists for communicating critical instructions to the population about a storm’s status, changes to evacuation routes or the emergence of new threats, such as tornados or flooding.

Emergency operations centers can also predefine potential scenarios and decide who should be doing what in response to a specific disaster. If the scenario actually occurs, a single keystroke can alert thousands of people, each receiving detailed instructions in the form of intrusive audio-visual pop-up windows on the desktop, text-to-speech messages through a telephone call, text messages on a BlackBerry device, as well as audio messages over the public address system. The alerts describe what actions to take and in cases where personalized delivery devices are used, provide more detailed information such as maps and evacuation routes.

The timely delivery of information via network-centric emergency notification is paramount to defining and understanding the emergency which enables emergency preparedness, prompt reaction and effective countermeasures.

All of these capabilities add up to the increased likelihood that the potential impact of massive disaster, such as hurricane, can be mitigated. That means lives saved and property spared.

Being prepared and having an effective alerting system in place before an emergency happens is essential to ensuring the safest response and preparation when facing a disaster.

guyGuy Miasnik is CEO and president of AtHoc, San Mateo, Calif., the pioneer and recognized leader in providing network-centric emergency mass notification systems to military, homeland security, government and commercial organizations. Miasnik can be reached at gmiasnik@athoc.com.