Part 1: Events that Heralded the Need
The Cold War
Electronic mass notification gained prominence in 1963 when the U.S. government implemented the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) to quickly warn the entire population of any emergency. In that era, school children routinely participated in nuclear bomb safety drills, and many of us recall a voice declaring over the television or radio, “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. For the next 60 seconds … this is only a test,” followed by a loud, one-minute tone.
That system was replaced in 1997 by the Emergency Alert System (EAS), designed to enable the President of the United States to speak to the entire country within minutes. The EAS also relies on TV and radio, but includes analog, digital, terrestrial, and satellite broadcast. EAS is effective for reaching a very large geographical area, but it isn’t flexible enough to target a specific area such as a county, city, or neighborhood.
Localized catastrophes during the past two decades and the adoption of many additional communication modes have increased the need for a new class of mass notification systems that can effectively warn many people at once in a specific affected area using the latest communication channels. For most of the world, Sept. 11, 2001, was the wake-up call. But for the Department of Defense, the wake-up call came a few years earlier, in the form of a truck bomb.
1996: DOD’s Wakeup Call in Saudi Arabia
On the evening of June 25, 1996, a fuel truck drove up to a U.S. Air Force base in Saudi Arabia, parking near Khobar Towers, a housing complex on the base. A few men got out of the truck and escaped in a getaway car. Sentries on the roof quickly identified the truck as a bomb, reported the threat to Central Security Control (CSC), and started evacuating the building, knocking on doors and calling out warnings. Meanwhile, CSC started the process of activating the base’s “Giant Voice,” a loudspeaker system used to issue voice or siren alerts across the entire base. Unfortunately, the process was so awkward and complicated that Giant Voice could not be turned on in time. The sentries could only evacuate three floors before the bomb went off, ripping through the building with a force estimated at nearly 20,000 pounds of TNT. While the sentries saved many lives with their efforts, 20 men were killed and nearly 400 were injured.
In his analysis of the incident, published in July 2007, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen coined the phrase “mass notification,” noting that measures such as knocking on doors and word-of-mouth were “… not a substitute for an automated mass notification system.” This incident was the impetus for the Department of Defense authoring its pioneering document in 2002, “DOD Minimum Antiterrorism Standards for Buildings,” which defines mass notification as “… the capability to provide real-time information and instructions to people, in a building, area, site, or installation using intelligible voice communications including visible signals, text, and graphics, and possibly including other tactile or other communication methods.” The DOD realized that the old way of doing things — manual phone trees, manual one-way e-mail blasts, paging, and word-of-mouth — were woefully inadequate to the task of emergency notification, and that an automated solution using a wide variety of communication modes was needed. Soon the rest of the world would realize the same.
2000– 2009: One Catastrophe after Another
The past decade has had more than its fair share of terrorist bombings and natural disasters that underscore the need for automated mass notification:
- Sept. 11, 2001 – Terrorists attack the World Trade Center in New York City and government buildings Washington, D.C.
- 2004 – Madrid train bombings
- 2004 – Tsunami in Southeast Asia
- 2005 – Hurricane Katrina
- 2005 – London Underground public transport bombing
- 2007 – Virginia Tech campus shootings
- 2008 – Deadliest tornado and hurricane outbreak in 23 years
- 2009 – H1N1 influenza global pandemic outbreak
- 2010 – Haiti earthquake
In every case, an automated, rapid two-way mass notification system able to reach many people at once on multiple communication modes — such as cell phone, landline, e-mail, text message, pager, fax, TTY for the hearing impaired and BlackBerry PIN-to-PIN — could have helped save lives and reduce confusion in the midst of these calamities.
In particular, two of these events changed the way we think about public safety and business continuity. During the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, a mass notification system would have been instrumental in guiding people to safety and coordinating the efforts of public safety personnel before and after the towers collapsed. It also would have helped those companies with offices in the towers to better communicate with their employees to monitor their status, provide support, assess their business situation, and activate recovery plans.
The Virginia Tech campus shootings, in which a lone shooter killed 32 people and injured many more, was also a major catalyst, serving as the clarion call to educational institutions nationwide to immediately implement mass notification systems to keep students safe and parents informed during critical, fast-moving situations.
Part 2: The Technological Path to Mass Notification
1980s and 1990s
In the 1980s, notification consisted of point-to-point, one-way e-mails and pages, with e-mail only working within closed corporate networks. The early ’90s saw the introduction of e-mail for the masses, but only with subscription services such as Prodigy, CompuServe, and AOL, at dial-up speeds. Meanwhile, computer-generated text-to-speech was so primitive as to be completely impractical except for the most cryptic alerts, used primarily by corporate IT personnel for network maintenance issues. And standards for handling voice dialogues between humans and computers didn’t yet exist, making it difficult to develop notification systems that could interact directly with people using speech. At the same time, telephony infrastructure was expensive and bandwidth was limited, meaning, one could only make a few outgoing calls at a time.
The 1990s saw significant advances in Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) and T1 technology, dramatically decreasing the cost of telephony ports while increasing the capacity of trunk lines. By the year 2000, costs and capacities were at a point that sending an urgent message with thousands of simultaneous phone calls became practical and cost effective. E-mail had also advanced to become a universal communication medium, making it practical for reaching many people quickly.
2000s: The Confluence of Enabling Technologies
As the need for effective mass communication intensified throughout the last decade, technologies have emerged that make such solutions possible. Chief among them are VXML, improved text-to-speech, SMS, and Web 2.0.
- VoiceXML (or VXML) – Introduced in 1999, the Voice Extensible Markup Language is an XML format for adding tags to voice data so that a computer will know how to present and process this data. Just as HTML allows you to view and interact with documents using a Web browser, keyboard, and mouse, VXML lets you use a voice browser to listen to a pre-recorded or computer-synthesized voice, and to provide input through your spoken voice or with DTMF (Dial Tone Multi Frequency) tones from a telephone keypad. VXML paved the way for mass notification systems to take any message and accurately convey it as speech to human recipients and to correctly interpret and play back audio inputs received from people — all instantly, and all without special custom programming to enable it.
- Improved Text-To-Speech – Speech synthesis in 2000 was primitive, choppy, and alien sounding. Since then, speech synthesis has improved so much that many people actually find the synthesized voice easier to understand than a recorded human voice. Combined with VXML, it is now practical to type messages and transmit them as voice using a mass notification system.
- SMS – Short Message Service, or text messaging became available for common use in 2000. Over the course of the past decade, SMS usage has grown to billions of messages sent daily. With global cell phone adoption now in the billions, SMS has become a critical, “unobtrusive” mode for quickly reaching people. Schools in particular rely on SMS since the majority of students use cell phones and SMS almost exclusively. (As of this writing, SMS should still be used in tandem with other communication modes, because the wireless infrastructure is not yet optimized to guarantee immediate delivery of SMS messages.)
- Web 2.0 – The shift from the so-called Web 1.0 of the 1990s and early 2000s to Web 2.0 was a game changer. Web 1.0 was static; early Web pages contained text and graphics, links to more pages, and simple forms for inputting. Web 2.0 is a paradigm shift, replicating the desktop application user experience online and providing rich interactivity to users worldwide. Web 2.0 enables mass notification systems to be hosted online as Software as a Service (SaaS), or “cloud computing,” meaning they can be accessed via any Internet-connected device. SaaS also makes mass notification technology cost-effective, as the cost of the infrastructure can be spread among a near-infinite number of users. Web 2.0’s interactivity makes it easy for administrators to configure and use their mass notification systems and for registered recipients to keep their contact data current by simply logging in. People can also use a Web 2.0-enabled mass notification system to report their status to their employers or the authorities by logging in through any Internet browser. In addition, Web 2.0 technology allows Web-hosted mass notification systems to provide real-time reporting of communications in progress, including who’s received notifications, when, on what communication devices, and how they responded—all vital information during a critical event.
Part 3: New Uses of Mass Notification Technology
The events of the 1990s and 2000s have made clear the need for automated, rapid, two-way mass notification systems, and subsequently, many government agencies, municipal public safety departments, and educational institutions worldwide have implemented such systems.
At the same time, enterprise risk management and business continuity have matured as core corporate disciplines, with mass notification playing a key role in ensuring employee safety and carrying out continuity and recovery plans. Companies large and small, global and regional, have started using mass notification systems, representing numerous industries including manufacturing, retail, financial services, transportation, energy, food service, and healthcare. This trend will continue to grow as more and more companies implement risk and emergency management as vital parts of their businesses.
Mass notification systems also play a critical role in helping IT departments maintain network uptime, instantly alerting IT staff when there is a network outage or urgent help desk issue. The importance of this cannot be overstated, as much of the world depends on IT uptime, and every minute of downtime can result in significant lost revenue and interruption of important services.
In addition, many organizations have realized that their mass notification systems can provide real productivity gains in their daily operations, greatly increasing the return on their investment. Examples include:
- Supply chain logistics – inventory levels, shipment schedules and delays, routing of shipments
- Transportation – staffing, scheduling, and coordination of drivers and pilots
- Employee communications – staffing and scheduling, updates to benefits and HR policies, news and events, executive messages, facilities management
- Retail – pricing and product updates to distributors and outlets
- Marketing – marketing promotions, ad hoc customer surveys
- CRM – billing and late payment notices, product and service updates
- Sales management – updates to offerings, pricing and promotions, polling and real-time reports from sales people in the field
- Event management – coordination of staff, venue and scheduling changes, attendee polling, and event announcements
The uses for mass notification will only continue to expand in the coming years for public safety, risk and emergency management, as well as daily operations. What began as a tool to keep people safe in a localized area can provide myriad benefits to people and organizations worldwide.
Frank Mahdavi, chief strategy officer for MIR3, Inc., has fulfilled strategic roles in the software engineering and telecommunications industries for nearly three decades. For the past eight years at MIR3, Mahdavi has been responsible for tracking and analyzing mass communication technology and market trends.