In the aftermath of 9/11, the Asian tsunami, the New Orleans floods, and other recent natural and man-made disasters, many corporations have learned the importance of planning for the worst in their business continuity plans. If anything, continuity planners are well aware of threats ranging from bioterrorism to Avian flu, from weather-related catastrophes to manmade disasters.
Yet too often businesses rely on antiquated technology and outdated thinking in regard to business continuity planning in case of disaster. In fact, a better way in the age of telecommunications is for companies to look at the growing number of "automated emergency notification" applications available today.
Though these software applications have begun to find an audience, the market remains far from saturated. The second annual Trends in Business Continuity and Risk Management Survey revealed in 2005 that 41 percent of respondents plan to rely on manual call trees to get the word out about emergencies.
That is just too slow in a real crisis, especially when compared to the sophisticated, time-saving emergency notification programs. These applications allow companies to notify a large volume of executives, managers, and employees at once and record, in real time, whether the messages have been received and if employees have followed their instructions. They allow companies to use all modes of communications to reach employees and employ their business continuity plans rapidly.
"In a crisis, prompt notification of an organization’s personnel, customers, and suppliers is critical," writes Roberta J. Witty and Kristen Noakes-Fry, two security analysts with the Gartner Group who authored a recent paper on business continuity and emergency notification. "Manual dialing from a telephone ‘call tree’ is no longer sufficient because it is slow, often uses inaccurate or incomplete information and is generally unsuitable for dialing even a few hundred users in a short timeframe. "On the receiving side, it is too easy for a message to be missed, mangled, misunderstood, or undelivered."
The analysts report that emergency notification systems will be used in more than 75 percent of the Global 2000 workplaces within the next two years. Though multinational companies are seeing the advantage of automation in disaster scenarios, the majority of large firms and government agencies still have plans relying on calling trees and other mechanisms incapable of handling business continuity situations requiring a high volume of communications.
That’s where automated emergency notification applications come into the story.
Emergency Notification Applications
So what do these applications offer? In a nutshell, they provide an automation of the calling tree and a multi-channel approach to disaster notification. Instead of communicating with employees over a number of hours, a disaster notification system can contact nearly everyone within minutes through any number of means ranging from interactive voice response (IVR) phone calls to e-mail.
Consider how manual phone trees work in contrast to automated systems. At best manual trees can only call a few hundred people over a time span that, in some cases, lasts hours. Nor are phones any kind of failsafe since if cell towers fall during a hurricane, for instance, or electricity fails, phones will not work. A Verizon cell tower fell during 9/11, cutting off wireless communications during the height of the disaster.
Automated emergency notification systems send out messages in a variety of formats, ranging from pager alerts to Blackberry-ready messages. Communications can be programmed before a disaster and changed on the fly if necessary. They can weave their way through modern telecommunications systems, deploying messages on a variety of pathways and aggregating real time data regarding who has been reached – and who has not.
When a disaster occurs, a company using an emergency notification solution can do the following:
u Create a templated notification tailored to individuals and groups within a company, offering directions based on their locations, job titles, and associated factors.
u Initiate notifications through the phone and the Web and then broadcast them through e-mail, PDAs, pagers, faxes, Blackberrys, wireless and wired phones. Messages can be preprogrammed or created on the fly.
u Ask questions and quickly capture real time data from recipients – such as a confirmation the information was received so disaster planners have a sense of employee response.
u Forward unanswered inquiries to other people or devices such as PDAs or pagers.
u Change messages or suggested actions after a disaster takes place.
u Terminate messages based on pre-determined rules and responses received.
u Monitor physical alarms in buildings and alarms set through corporate networks.
u Generate reports revealing how disaster plans worked, how many messages arrived, whether employees acted upon them (and how quickly), and other metrics.
The applications interface with existing human resource software, e-mail programs, productivity suites, and other enterprise systems. They scale to the size of the business. They sometimes offer toolbars allowing business continuity professionals to have on their desktops an instrument for monitoring and managing emergency notification applications, just as financial analysis toolbars offers constantly updated plant production levels. And the notification systems allow businesses to meet their recovery time objectives.
Taken together, the features in automated emergency notification applications provide users with a simple, intuitive, and highly customizable method of reaching any size employee base. The applications rely on interfaces and communication modalities easily comprehensible to both business continuity managers and employees. And they allow companies who may now rely on three-ring binders full of emergency plans to adopt a more robust system firmly planted in 21st century technology.
The Value of Automated Notification
Many businesses may not want to invest in a system they may never use (if they are lucky), or one they would deploy only a handful of times over a number of years. Yet emergency notification systems can be used for purposes in addition to business continuity without any loss of functionality or diminution of their disaster-warning capabilities.
Among the uses could be sending and receiving orders from the field, dispatching vehicles, warning staff about computer viruses, and conducting a handful of other business functions. Other uses include letting employees know about critical staff shortages on a particular day, appointment reminders, announcements, and group messaging.
Even if businesses choose not to deploy the application for anything other than emergency notification the investment still remains a wise one. No one wants to lose valued employees needlessly or for lack of preparation. The implementation of notification software celebrates the values of a company’s leadership by creating goodwill between executives and their employees.
Government and regulatory bodies often demand certain organizations – chemical and power plants, school districts, universities – are required to have crisis communications plans in place and certainly an emergency notification application goes a long way toward fulfilling compliance requirements. Additionally, business insurers take into account the presence of business continuity plans based on emergency notification applications.
Finally, business continuity professionals understand a disaster or crisis can set back business functions for hours, days, or weeks. Business interruptions can be costly and the inability to gather forces to manage a disaster can lead to yet another disaster – a financial one. Business continuity is the No. 1 objective of emergency notification systems.
A Scenario: A Crumbling Dam
Imagine a crisis at a power plant on a major river. High waters from an exceptionally rainy spring threaten to topple a section of the dam. A sensor on the dam has been tripped, sending a message to security and engineering staffs that it is in danger of collapsing. At that point the power plant’s emergency notification goes live.
First, the plant’s disaster team receives a pager notification and automated phone call with information on where to meet to continue monitoring the dam and to look over evacuation plans for the plant. Another templated message will be sent out to plant executives setting up a meeting where they can begin to make important decisions regarding the crisis.
Within 10 minutes the situation grows in intensity. Video surveillance cameras show part of the dam looks sure to fail. Executives decide to shut the plant down and use the notification system to alert the managers of 15 divisions. They, in turn, deploy the notification software – through e-mail, pagers, and automated phone calls to alert their employees with specific instructions on evacuating the building and premises.
A third rail of messaging has also kicked into gear. Upon reviewing details of the looming disaster, plant executives immediately instruct the business continuity staff to use the notification system to alert local, state, and federal authorities to a potential problem with the dam.
The U.S. Coast Guard begins clearing boats off downriver areas. Local fire and police departments start knocking on doors of people within a block of the river. The electronic and print media receives an alert from the plant and begin broadcasting warnings.
A team of civil engineers experienced in dam construction receive a notification and request to collect at a point outside the plant to offer advice and options. The engineers, all from a local company that had done repairs on the dam in the past, has an emergency plan for repairs it had shared with plant officials in the past.
With the concurrence of government disaster authorities, plant officials decide to embark upon a somewhat dangerous quick fix that could stem further structural damage. A team uses a helicopter and special equipment to divert water around the injured area of the dam while repairs are done.
Six hours later the plant gets a reprieve. The dam holds and the water level behind it stabilizes. The sun shines. Government disaster authorities feel confident enough to allow residents to return to their homes. The plant, a major power source for the region, gradually gets back online over the following 12 hours.
Each step of the way the emergency notification has been sending messages to authorities, plant employees, and the media while monitoring responses. As the danger subsides, so does the volume of messages. Employees receive instructions on returning to the plant at specific times as a plan for restoring power generation gets under way.
At a press conference plant officials also announce a program for rebuilding the dam over the next three years. Disaster was averted, for now, and plant officials bask in a glow of congratulations from elected representatives and the governor who praise their early warnings and the seamless response of both government authorities and the company’s emergency team.
The dam break turns into a public relations bonanza as plant officials are seen as offering a local and state model for disaster alert and recovery. Whispers of comparison between this potential disaster and what happened in New Orleans are heard on the street, in the papers, and on the airwaves.
The enterprise-wide event notification system did its job. Employees praise their employer for keeping them informed throughout the crisis. They work overtime in the coming week to restore the plant’s capacity and to plan for the dam repair. Everyone agrees things could have gone much worse if communications had gone awry.
That didn’t happen.
My sense is emergency notification systems will soon become part of the fabric of many government agencies and corporations. The threat posed by the loss of business continuity due to poor planning is just too great now to avoid an investment in emergency notification. With the ability to deploy these applications for non-emergency communications’ needs and their clear advantage in crisis conditions, they represent the most technologically sophisticated method for managing any potential disasters in the near and distant future.
Kathy Veldboom, the chief operating officer of Amcom Software, Inc., provides consultation regarding emergency communications to clients in healthcare, government, universities, utilities, finance, and Fortune 100 companies. Veldboom’s prior roles include systems analysis, project management, and marketing.
"Appeared in DRJ's Spring 2007 Issue"