Emergencies come in all shapes and sizes. Some impact just a few people; others can crash an entire organization. Regardless of the nature or scale, one important key to maintaining business resiliency and continuity is to quickly and accurately communicate to everyone affected.
One positive outcome from the recent spate of exceptional natural and man-made emergencies – Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the mass murder at Virginia Tech, the 2007 San Diego wildfires – is the push by companies, safety officials, and technology providers to improve emergency notification capabilities. In all four cases, poor communication of accurate and timely information cost people their lives.
The constant evolution of information and communication technology is also raising expectations for what can be achieved in terms of messaging speed, targeting, and audience interaction. Corporate business continuity managers and public safety officials now face the challenge of choosing and leveraging the right communication technologies, both new and emerging, that provide the greatest benefit for their employees and the public.
Today, new technologies exist that can greatly enhance a corporation’s ability to notify employees in harm’s way without unnecessary alarm. The latest notification solutions now harness the universal power of location while providing simplified device and system integration, enhanced interoperability, and reduced user cost and support needs. Furthermore, businesses can take advantage of the powerful remote sensing capabilities incorporated into modern smart phones and use them in creative ways to automate notification and other emergency functions through location and environment-based triggers and geo-fences.
Mass Notification Systems – The Foundation
Mass notification systems allow private organizations to quickly create a message, select the audience, and broadcast the message across diverse communication channels with the goal of reaching the entirety of their audience – both those in harm’s way and others that can render assistance. Corporations are using notification systems for events like mass employee notification, smaller incident response operations, and continuity of operations (COOP). The technology found in the top-of-the-line mass notification systems may include:
- A web-based interface to create pre-defined messages, events and notification scenarios, to create and send messages, and track message delivery, views, responses, and feedback.
- Unified communication channels, with the ability to instantly send alerts and rich content like mapping and routing information to any IP-network device (computers or landline, VOIP and mobile phones, and smart phones) and through any message medium (voice, e-mail, SMS, instant messaging, pictures, video, and social networking applications like Twitter).
- Flexible system management via the corporate headquarters or by field personnel using smart phones or laptops with access to web-based portals. When Internet access is unavailable in a crisis, remote call centers can initiate and manage alerts.
- Comprehensive message and response tracking through polling and interactivity features that determines if the message was received and viewed and allow for the collection of feedback.
- Common technology and messaging standards and interfaces, such as XML, and web-service APIs. These provide a high degree of interoperability, standardization, information sharing, integration with internal and external services and systems, and abundant user customization capabilities.
- Security features that establish user permission levels and control message management and targeting.
- Message triggering that can be accomplished deliberately by headquarters and field personnel, or automatically by remote sensors, external messages, and alerts (i.e. National Weather Service).
- Recipient listings generated from opt-in distribution lists and pre-defined user groups, such as company personnel directories in COOP applications.
Most advanced notification systems also provide two-way communication and interactivity and inbound communications through call centers with IVR capabilities. Some software suites integrate notification with incident management, resource and personnel tracking, and AVL and CAD functions. Such features are now available to private organizations harnessing increasingly prevalent network-centric or IP-based notification solutions.
Location, Location, Location
Corporations must provide the right information to the right individuals during a crisis. Informing the wrong people does nothing to save lives and may create unnecessary panic and emergency calls. This wastes resources, time, and call center bandwidth. Until now, corporations typically used notification systems to send urgent voice, e-mail, and SMS messages to all employees regardless of their location. If a critical event were to occur, corporations had no way of identifying who is or is not in harm’s way.
A successful notification event requires an affirmative reply to the following three questions:
- Was the right information provided?
- Were the appropriate individuals targeted?
- Did individuals actually receive the alert through the devices they use?
One key to achieving a successful outcome for each question is by providing information that is relevant to recipients based on their location. Emergencies are inherently geographical in nature. To that end, geospatial or geographic information systems and mapping technologies are playing an increasingly important role in emergency management and COOP operations as a means to visualize complex emergencies, improve situational awareness, and response time. Mapping systems and solutions to solve for location are becoming more common in the marketplace.
As noted above, current notification systems often include some degree of geo-targeting capability to identify message recipients in a particular crisis area and send voice, e-mail, and SMS alerts to these individuals based on their registered location. This is usually a home or business address contained in an “opt-in” list or employee personnel directories. These systems work well when the registrant is at or near that address. However, they can’t tackle situations where the individual is in a different location or moving. Nor can they allow for targeting of visitors to an area in the midst of a crisis event.
Current notification solutions that incorporate geographical information system and mapping capabilities are limited by the technologies that exist in the marketplace to solve for mobile device location. Many regular cell phones use circa 1997 radio cell tower technology to triangulate a user’s location. Smarter phones use timing signals broadcast by GPS satellites. GPS improves location accuracy to within 60 feet of a user’s location. But GPS is fraught with its own limitations. Bad weather, cloud cover, buildings and other obstructions severely hinder satellite communications, rendering GPS at best unreliable or at worst, unavailable, during severe weather events and in dense urban environments. Frequent GPS calls to the satellite necessary for accurate positioning also place greater demands on a mobile device’s battery life. This is particularly worrisome during an emergency-related power outage; first responders have less time and ability to roam far from headquarters, and employees will more quickly lose access to critical information. Assisted GPS, which supplements GPS satellites with terrestrial towers to address errors and occasions when satellite access is unavailable, provides additional reliability in these situations, but still relies heavily on satellite communications. In sum, neither of these solutions, alone or together, is sufficient for modern location use cases that require real-time, continuous location information, such as pinpointing and rapidly sending alerts to employees, stakeholders, and first responders.
The answer is a hybrid positioning system that brings additional location data sources into the mix such as Wi-Fi, cell tower signals, and local positioning systems. However, it is challenging to integrate these systems in a way that provides a seamless end-user experience, due to both technological complexity and fragmentation in the marketplace (i.e. a multitude of carriers, mobile devices, mapping systems, and emergency notification applications).
The latest technology allows organizations to:
- Alert staff and citizens where they stand, saving time, money, and potentially lives.
- Use all common mobile device types, carriers, mapping programs, and location technologies, eliminating deployment costs and complexity.
- Leverage an open delivery channel that allows for unlimited text, embedded pictures, maps and turn-by-turn directions and hyperlinks.
- Deliver location-based messages with the highest level of accuracy.
Location-based notifications allow corporations to contact individuals closest to the event or those who need to be contacted with the most urgency first. Administrators can generate a list of recipients to contact based on their proximity to an area and send targeted messages accordingly. Similarly, the efforts of key employees and responders can be more effectively coordinated. For example, a company can mobilize information technology, emergency, and business continuity response teams based on the location of key resources and personnel and ensure the right people are where they’re needed. Knowing the location of key specialists and support needed during an event is critical and allows corporations to make better, smarter decisions.
In addition, different people need different information based on where they are in relation to an event. Some may need direction to evacuation points, while others may benefit from knowing they’re safe where they are. With location-based notifications, alerts can include evacuation routes that display in an easy to follow format on a mobile phone allowing corporations to direct employees to safety based on their present location. With the ability to send unlimited text, pictures, attachments, and hyperlinks, organizations can deliver the information people need – when and where they need it.
An automated notification based on proximity and location can greatly aid companies that need to send the right information to the right people instantly during a crisis. Current solutions that support all major mobile devices, carriers, mapping programs, and location technologies, allow managers to reach their entire audience – which may consist of thousands of individuals using up to 10 different mobile phone platforms – without additional integration and configuration hassles and costs.
Nicky Miller is the product marketing manager for TFCC Alert at Twenty First Century Communications (TFCC). Miller holds a master’s degree in marketing and communications from Franklin University and has been with TFCC since March 2006. She can be reached at (800) 382-8356 x261 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jonathan Cross is director of government services at ZOS Communications. Cross has more than 15 years of management and technical consulting experience for federal and state government clients in the Washington, DC area. He holds an MBA from the University of Maryland and a Master of Arts in technology policy and international affairs from George Washington University. He can be reached at (202) 352-3222 or email@example.com.