Emergency notification systems have risen in popularity over the past few years. These communication tools offer a faster, more efficient way to communicate in a variety of settings. Often associated with use in an emergency situation, these systems can deliver critical messages to mass numbers of people in a very short time. It is now becoming common for many organizations to use notification systems for daily communication needs.
Numerous vendors in the industry provide such systems. Each system may vary by several factors and are known by a variety of names. These include mass notification, automated notification, alert notification, and enterprise-level notification systems.
Most systems support multiple device notification, including cell phones, e-mails, faxes, and more. Others offer polling capabilities, answering machine awareness, conference calls, and real-time message acknowledgement. Other features to consider include the capability to prioritize messages and to select specific contact groups.
Browse any notification service provider’s Web site and you will find a multitude of settings where these systems are being put to use. Examples include the financial sector, security industry, public safety entities, government agencies, and private industries.
In one case, an electric company is using a system to communicate with employees about impending bad weather. This type of early warning allows for adequate staff to be on hand in case of downed lines or other interruptions.
In a school, the systems are used to help parents communicate with teachers, administrators, and transportation officials. It can also be used to send out messages for unexpected school closings, after-school activities and to help staff arrange after-hour meetings.
A manufacturer may use a system to notify customers of changes in delivery schedules or product availability. It can also be used for product recalls.
In the public sector, many cities across the United States are implementing some type of notification system to help stay in contact with citizens and city employees. The City of Inglewood, Calif., is one such community. According to Michael Falkow, IT director for the city, the emergency notification system is a tremendous value to the city.
"It is a very powerful technology," said Falkow. "It is very valuable, not only for emergency notification, but for non-emergency situations, too."
The city implemented the notification system during the early months of 2006. It offers a method of mass communication to the city’s 125,000 citizens within minutes using a reverse-911 method. The system also allows city departments to contact and mobilize personnel.
Previously, the city relied on manual call lists to contact citizens or city employees. It was a much slower method, said Falkow.
"To contact 40 people, it would take one to two hours," he said. "Now we can record a message, hit launch, and within minutes people are located and are calling in or reporting to where they need to be.
"This technology gives us the ability to communicate within minutes, where in the past that could take hours."
The city recently used the service to notify nearly 300 citizens of an emergency water repair. Prior to installing the system, city officials would have needed to make manual phone calls or make door-to-door visits. Because of the sudden need for the repair, a quicker method was beneficial.
"We recorded a message and created a call-back number where citizens could leave a message and a separate call-back number to use if they needed to speak to personnel," said Falkow. "Within minutes we were able to see which phone numbers had received the message.
"It was a nice thing and went off without a hitch. We received a lot of positive feedback from our constituents."
Falkow said 75 people were trained on the system. He sees a great need for the system and believes it can be useful in multiple situations. Potential hazards in the Inglewood area include earthquakes, toxic spills, tsunamis, crime situations, and plane crashes, since the city is very near the Los Angeles airport runway.
"We feel that is it very worthwhile," he said. "If it saves one life in our city, it is worth the money spent and more."
The financial sector is also seeing the benefits of having notification systems in place. The Chicago Board Options Exchange launched their system in May 2006. The CBOE, founded in 1973, is the creator of listed options and the nation’s largest options marketplace. Communication with its trading members is critical for both routine and emergency messages.
According to Jack O’Neill, CBOE director of e-help desk, market operations, the system provides a way to communicate with traders on the floor and with those who are working from remote locations.
"We are using it to alert our remote traders about the things that might affect them," said O’Neill. "For example, delayed openings or changes in classes."
The notification system is Web-based, a convenience that O’Neill likes.
"I like the fact that it is Web-based. I can notify from any PC that has an Internet connection. If necessary, I can notify from my home PC system," he said.
Recipients of messages from the system can choose their contact preferences, whether it is via e-mail, cell phone, home phone, or a pager.
Traders on the floor also receive communication through the notification system. Prior to its use, information was conveyed to the onsite traders through PA announcements, text messages on monitors in the trading pits, or support staff.
"Communication was the key for picking this system," said O’Neill. "It would be impossible to call all of our offsite traders. We could use e-mail, but there is no way of knowing if and when they would check that."
The CBOE has employed the system in its disaster recovery plan as well.
"I have been very satisfied with the system. It is worth the money," said O’Neill.
Emergency responders are also finding emergency notification systems useful. The Disaster Medical Assistance Team in California has used an automated notification system for more than two years.
A DMAT team is a volunteer team organized under the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS), which is now part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Their goal is to provide emergency medical care and is composed of 100 to 150 medical professionals, plus support staff.
When a disaster occurs in California, DMAT CA-6, a team based in the San Francisco area, has a three-hour commitment to respond to the call for help.
David Lipin, commander, DMAT CA-6, said the group uses the system to notify team members across the state to respond to situations.
During the recent Esperanza Fire, which killed four firefighters in Southern California, a state activation was issued for DMAT. The unit was requested by the state at 9 a.m.; a state-wide DMAT notification to 300 individuals was launched within the hour. By 11 a.m. the team was rostered and by noon, they were en route. The team was operational on site by 7 p.m.
Lipin credits the notification system with making the quick activation possible.
"With an automated notification system, one person was able to assemble a roster within two hours," he said. "If we had to use our manual (backup) system, it would have taken 10 to 12 people four to six hours to accomplish the same task. This would have delayed the start of patient treatment until the next day."
Regardless of what your organizations’ needs are, an automated notification system can increase communication efficiency and accuracy. With proper research, the right system can be found for any budget, any size organization, and any special requirements.
Janette Ballman, senior editor of the Disaster Recovery Journal, has written numerous articles covering business continuity and disaster recovery topics. Ballman holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has been published in a variety of newspapers, magazines and other medium.
"Appeared in DRJ's Winter 2007 Issue"