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The Next Generation of Mass Notification Software: How to bring your EN strategy up to date

Written by  Tony Schmitz March 30, 2010

In the early morning hours of Feb. 27, 2010, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake rocked the Republic of Chile. It was the fifth largest earthquake recorded since the beginning of the twentieth century. Over the next few hours, it became clear that an earthquake of such size could set off a tsunami capable of threatening Hawaii, Alaska, and the entire western United States seaboard. Experts recalled the May 1960 earthquake had also hit the coast of central Chile: the quake, with a magnitude of 9.5, had triggered a tsunami that reached Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines, killing dozens in each place.

On Feb. 27, the National Weather Service Pacific Tsunami Warning Centers in Hawaii, Alaska, and across the West Coast reacted immediately, sending out numerous warnings and alerts through a variety of methods and communication devices. In a matter of hours, notifications reached local governments, media outlets, and emergency responders, helping them to prepare quickly for the possible disaster. And although the tsunami was not as severe as expected, the public was adequately prepared for what could have been a very dangerous situation.

In the first moments of a crisis or emergency situation, timely communication can save lives, resources, and reputation. Unfortunately, it is often during these very moments that critical lines of communication are cut off, and that making contact becomes more difficult than ever. A contemporary mass notification platform should provide an organization with an efficient way to manage an incident and coordinate automated, rapid communication across a broad network of recipients.

The benefits of a modern mass notification system include increased efficiency, reliability, and accountability, all of which are often limited under the constraints of manual phone trees, unassisted notification, and other outdated alerting systems. Through contemporary mass notification systems, quick communication to a broad contact base – across a variety of devices – can be simplified and streamlined. And as companies are becoming increasingly focused on business continuity, regulatory compliance, security, and the ability to audit information flow, the need for swift, appropriate, and documented communication has never been more urgent.

The Drawbacks of Single-Modal Communications
Mass notification systems fulfill the promise of instant communication by processing outbound messages in a matter of minutes, or even seconds. However, different types of notification systems have different strengths. For instance, an auto-dialer is relatively inexpensive, but it lacks multi-modal functionality and does not facilitate or analyze two-way communications. Linked paging groups rely upon a single communications provider’s network, and, like auto-dialers, cannot record information for easy analysis. And, while e-mail messages are inexpensive and two-way, responses are likely to lack uniformity and cannot be analyzed easily. Further, there is no guarantee that recipients will read or respond quickly to email. None of these tools alone ensures real-time, two-way communication with an audit trail, which is critical to effective crisis management.

While many organizations have an emergency notification system in place, they often fail to recognize the importance of communicating via multiple points of contact. Real-life crises have demonstrated that at least one communication modality will usually work during any given event – even during a blackout or a severe storm. However, until a crisis strikes, it’s impossible to know which communication paths will be available.

The flexibility inherent in multi-modal communication increases the chance that important and time-sensitive messages will reach people quickly during an emergency. If a mail server is down, or a network is overwhelmed, back-up points of contact are critical. Further, in emergency situations, multi-modality is critical on both ends of the communication chain, and administrators should consider their own access to the communication platform when it comes to sending messages.

Choosing SaaS to Eliminate the Shortcomings of On-Premise Solutions
While multi-modality ensures that messages are received, customer must ensure that they can send a message in the first place. Being in the cloud has significant advantages in today’s business environment, and top notification providers deliver their service through a SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) model. In order to obtain the full benefits of a service, a customer need only have access to an internet connection and a web browser or a handheld device. Simplicity is key.

When using on-premise services, customers must worry about provisioning hardware, support and maintenance, working with consultants, and obtaining key patches, updates, and upgrades. Maximize your ability to scale and minimize your upfront investments, while ensuring anywhere, anytime access by choosing a SaaS provider. Ultimately, the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) favors a SaaS-based approach.

Ensuring Redundancy in Your Network Infrastructure with SaaS

Next-generation mass notification systems built on a SaaS model also liberate organizations from the danger of infrastructure failure. Unlike premise-based solutions, SaaS-based solutions are redundant from customer infrastructure and geographically distributed to ensure network security. Additionally, they are more robust, with the ability to generate thousands of voice and text messages per minute from distant facilities unimpaired by local or regional infrastructure crises. The redundancy that is critical to a proper business continuity plan is defeated if an emergency notification software is housed in the same location as its customers’ other infrastructure. When selecting a mass notification system, organizations should look for a provider with a robust and tested infrastructure – one that’s redundant and flexible, and the security of which has been vetted by a third party audit firm.

Reliability and Peace of Mind with SAS 70

SAS 70 is a widely recognized auditing standard developed by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Type II audits involve an in-depth assessment and rigorous testing of a company’s control objectives, controls placed in operation, and operating effectiveness. The scope of the audit includes controls over information technology and related processes. A modern mass notification provider should, as a matter of course, ensure that it undergoes a full SAS 70 Type II audit with a reputable third party audit firm on an annual basis, and that it receives a clean audit opinion. With SAS 70 audits, customers can be certain that their notification provider’s systems and operations are secure and reliable, and that the provider will be able to deliver messages whenever necessary.

An Integrated Notification, BCP and IMS Solution as the Future of Business Continuity

Evaluate efficiencies among your business continuity tools. Organizations should begin to look to a single-source, lightweight platform that integrates mass notification software with a framework for both incident management (IMS) and proactive business continuity planning (BCP). Such an integrated solution can allow customers to benefit from cost-savings, while freeing them from locked-down, legacy, database-driven solutions developed by providers who are unwilling to embrace a modern approach.

Historically, organizations have turned to several software providers to support their business continuity platforms. By using one provider, organizations can reduce costs and minimize the stress of managing multiple vendor relationships. Complicated interfaces and the inefficiency of multiple entry points add to the stress of disaster planning, and many BCP or IMS tools are left unused. A simple to use interface allowing to-dos, strategies, and alerts to be organized and integrated ahead of time can allow organizations to remain both proactive and efficient in the management of a real crisis.

Lessons from a Decade of Risk: The Necessity of Mass Notification Systems

In today’s world, organizations without an effective mass notification system in place are putting themselves at a higher risk for financial and reputational losses. Mass notification technology is mature, reliable, and cost-effective – it can mean the difference between a business failing and a quick recovery in the event of unexpected crises. Every year, an increasing number of emergencies, disasters, and urgent business situations challenge organizations around the globe. In the last decade alone, we have witnessed the attacks of September 11, 2001; the Asian Tsunami of 2004; Hurricane Katrina and the London Terrorist Attacks in 2005; the Western wildfires of 2007; the financial crisis of 2008; Australia’s Black Saturday fire in 2009, and the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes in 2010. And considering the ever-growing potential for business disruptions in today’s interconnected market, there is no justification for an organization to remain unprepared.

Make sure that your organization has an emergency messaging system that is truly next-generation. Such a system should provide full multi-modal functionality, two-way communication, a robust and tested infrastructure based on a SaaS delivery model, and an integrated, lightweight IMS and BCP platform. Additionally, remember to consider cost, security, and versatility when choosing your mass notification platform – the right provider should simplify your operations, not add to the confusion. Let your mass notification platform form the foundation for your business continuity and incident management operations, allowing you to remain proactive in the face of unexpected crises.

About The Author

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Tony Schmitz is president and CEO of Send Word Now, a leading provider of on-demand alerting and response services for both routine and emergency communication. Send Word Now’s service is used by government agencies, municipalities, universities, non-profit organizations and businesses, to ensure fast, effective, two-way communication in real-time.