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Spring Journal

Volume 31, Issue 1

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For many corporations and government agencies, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, reinforced their prior commitment to developing comprehensive disaster recovery plans and emergency notification procedures. Many companies and agencies with plans in place are reviewing them in light of lessons learned; many others are now pursuing their development and implementation. Essential to the success of these plans is timely and accurate communication. High-speed notification technology, proven to be significantly more effective than manual calling methods during a crisis, is also a highly effective communications tool during the equally important planning and recovery stages.

In the planning phase, high-speed notification technology can be used to automatically gather and sort data for faster creation and updating of plans. During an actual crisis, the technology delivers speed, accuracy and reliability that cannot possibly be obtained through cumbersome manual notification procedures. Automated messages, delivered by such systems, convey event-specific information to everyone involved without further stressing employees. Finally, once the immediate crisis is over, recovery periods can be shortened, businesses brought back on line faster and dollars saved through continued communication and status updates using these systems.

Some corporations that have installed high-speed notification technology have discovered that its uses extend far beyond crisis response. In fact, these systems also are proven to help corporations and agencies operate more efficiently and communicate more coherently day to day.

A review of the entire crisis response process and the communication involved with each will help illustrate the basic elements common to most corporations and agencies as they create and implement contingency plans. High-speed notification technology can be integrated throughout to provide key assistance in all steps of the planning, notification and recovery process.


Planning
Changing Priorities

Many large corporations and government agencies have traditionally viewed themselves at low-risk for personnel safety and corporate endangerment. Thus, their priorities were to maximize operational efficiencies through the acquisition of technologies that improve day-to-day operations. It is precisely these companies and agencies that continue to rely on manual call trees and other limited notification methods, such as global paging systems, in times of crisis.


Dissatisfaction with this basic level of crisis communication has arisen at the same time that corporations and agencies have realized that all businesses can be targeted for harm, not simply those in high-risk industries or locations. Further, actual physical damage and personnel endangerment need not occur to hinder or halt operations. Threats, false alarms and rumors can impact operations just as severely as actual emergencies, posing the same need for timely communication and reassurance.

In this way, high-speed notification technology is increasingly perceived as a necessary part of everyday business.

Creating Scenarios

Once priorities have changed and the value of crisis response planning is acknowledged, careful preparation then becomes key in successfully navigating critical events. One of the first steps in creating a crisis communication system is to devise event-specific call-out scenarios. These scenarios contain all of the elements relevant for response to specific critical events, such as personnel rosters and contact information.

These situations can range from actual disasters that jeopardize employee safety in only one location to computer viruses that threaten operations throughout the entire company. A fire in a data center may pose only limited immediate risk to a handful of employees, but could potentially end up impacting hundreds of employees throughout the corporation. Thus, call-out scenarios are varied and can be numerous throughout an organization.

Determining whether to create a scenario involves assessing not only the number of employees affected, but also the extent of business interruption. Additionally, a review should also determine how critical the impacted operation is to the company’s continued functioning and the potential loss of dollars during down time. For example, a crisis in a single operation involving only 200 employees out of 50,000 could still cripple a company if not handled correctly.
In addition, scenarios are not “standard” and common to all businesses. They are crafted to the specifics of each particular operation. Using computerized, high-speed notification technology, companies are better able to customize their scenarios and keep track of them in one centralized location. With scalable programs, businesses can constantly add and revise scenarios as business conditions change and the company expands. For example, five years ago, very few corporations devised scenarios dealing with computer viral threats, now commonplace.

Alert Messages

Once scenarios have been devised, alert messages can be recorded that describe the situation and provide instructions to those notified. Preparing these messages ahead of time and storing them in these systems ensures that time will be saved during information delivery. Further, prerecording these messages ensures accuracy of delivery in times of crisis. It also spares employees from the stress of placing numerous phone calls so that they may attend to the critical tasks associated with restoring company operations and ensuring personnel safety.
Many high-speed notification systems also provide inbound status updates for employees and management to receive the latest word on the situation at hand.

Call-Out Rosters

Devising call-out rosters – lists of who will be called under what circumstances – can be a significant and time-consuming task in crafting crisis response plans. Call-out rosters vary based on which scenario is activated. These rosters can range from small groups of key managers or crisis action teams to all global employees.
High-speed notification technology can speed the process of creating call-out rosters and can dramatically reduce the number of errors. Many of these systems can import records from existing contingency planning software packages and most human resource databases, automatically building call-out rosters. In addition, the technology may enable Web entry of data by sending e-mails that link to information login sites. Finally, for companies without existing software, manual entry directly into these systems is also an option.
Using high-speed notification technology at this stage provides a highly efficient means of collecting personnel contact information, accelerating this data entry process and minimizing the need for additional labor.

Off Site Or Internal Hosting

Another crucial step in devising a critical response system is deciding if the hardware and software needed to run the system will be purchased and set up on site or hosted off site with a service provider. The decision is typically based, in part, on costs.

The implementation of high-speed notification technology may involve the installation of additional phone lines and employee-dedicated hours to maintain and oversee the system.

Additionally, the system hardware may have to be updated at regular intervals as technology advances.

Whether the corporation believes itself at risk and its emergency notification system in danger of becoming disabled or destroyed need also be considered. Off site hosting services provide the equipment and dedicated phone lines necessary to execute call-out scenarios. Notifications are activated via the Internet or remotely by phone.

For example, during the Sept. 11 attacks, our company was able to respond to one of its financial sector clients whose offices were located across the street from the World Trade Center. That company’s building was severely damaged, phone lines were down and records destroyed. Needing to send notices to nearly 200 employees alerting them to report to alternate work locations, a call-out scenario was successfully launched with one cell phone call.
More and more corporations prefer the off site hosting option for emergency notification for these very reasons of cost and security.

Updates

Once a contingency plan has been devised, it needs to be routinely updated to ensure information is current. High-speed notification systems provide a centralized way to keep personnel data up to date. Individuals can quickly modify contact information by phone, e-mail or the Web without manual intervention. Reports can be produced showing where responses were lacking, thus enabling gaps in the system to be filled and new information added.

Organizations that store crisis response data separately in human resource files, business continuity software or other electronic means, may find updating too onerous. They may postpone it, severely limiting the effectiveness of their notification plan. If they do decide to update, this can mean another round of data manipulation, involving employees disseminating, collecting and updating individual responses.

The kind of problems resulting from using non-automated systems became obvious in the days following Sept. 11, when many companies discovered their records were not up to date and that they had lost contact with personnel. In effect, the corporations discovered they had lost track of people at a time when it was crucial to account for them.

Notification
Activation

When a crisis situation occurs, notification systems become the nerve center for communicating with employees and response teams. The appropriate scenario may be activated directly at the system terminal, remotely by phone or via the Internet. Additionally, scenarios can be created on the fly within minutes.
In some cases, multiple call-out scenarios may need to run simultaneously. A crisis may have several elements or phases impacting various parts or locales of the company differently. In fact, more than one crisis may be occurring at the same time or an escalation of the situation at hand may require the notification process to rise to the next level. Corporations may want to ensure that their crisis response system has the ability to run multiple scenarios at the same time.

Multiple Locater Attempts & Feedback

Once a scenario has been activated, these systems will contact roster members based on their pre-defined preferences and profiles. These profiles can include multiple locations, such as office or home, and personal communications media (such as cell phone, fax, pager and e-mail).

Corporations and agencies would do well to investigate systems that offer bi-directional communications and real-time feedback. One method for capturing this information is through the use of secure PIN numbers. The entry of PINs is necessary before these systems will release event-specific information to call recipients. Alternately, those receiving the notification may be required to call an 800 number and enter their PIN number to receive the message.

Decision Making

Once key decision makers have been contacted, they need to take immediate action to ensure appropriate and timely response. High-speed notification technology can provide alerts regarding meeting times and locales. However, in times of crisis, such face-to-face meetings may be impossible, making phone conferencing the only viable option.

One of the most efficient ways to gather individuals during a contingency is to integrate a phone conferencing bridge with the crisis response notification system. Once key personnel are reached, they are immediately patched into a phone conference to review information and begin crucial decision making as soon as possible.

Some high-speed notification systems have the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary decision makers or crisis action team members, ensuring that someone will fill the necessary counts and be in a position to make critical decisions. This means that if someone key to the response is not available on first call, a secondary individual will be contacted by such systems. Even with a substitute located according to roster rules, it might still be desirable to know when the key team member would be able to arrive and assume their duties – something that high-speed notification technology can automatically provide.

Geographic Information Systems

Companies should also examine whether they will require the ability to perform large-scale, geographic-based notifications. Such technology may be required if a company needs to contact employees within a certain geographic region regarding such events as office closures and off site crisis action team meetings.

During the New York transit strike in recent years, some companies used Geographic Information System (GIS) capabilities to locate employees in outlying boroughs using zip codes. These employees were then contacted and provided with information on alternative transportation.

Further, high-speed notification systems can oftentimes incorporate real-time predictive software and consequence analysis capabilities. These tools provide estimates of the geographic area that will be impacted by the spread of hazards in a crisis, such as approaching tornadoes or chemical spills. Once the geography is mapped, then residents within that area can be contacted with speed and precision.

Recovery
Employee Logins And Reassurance

After a crisis is over, the work of the crisis response system continues. Employee locator services can be activated, often consisting of an off site toll-free number for employees to report in. These services also accommodate e-mail sends, requiring employees to log in their status.
In situations where buildings have been damaged and employees scattered, the crisis response system is invaluable for quickly locating workers, assuring their safety and assigning alternate office locations. In fact, this technology enables the company to better assess the gravity and impact of the crisis.

In addition, creation of an 800 number hotline with information on counseling, company updates, benefits and other information can reassure employees and families that the company is aware of their situation and concerned about their welfare.

Information such as business openings/closings, alternate business locations and work-from-home instructions are distributed easily and consistently. This information assists companies in communicating with employees following disaster strikes, putting the business back on track faster.

For example, following Sept. 11, a Fortune 500 financial institution notified more than 30,000 employees regarding the loss of property, loss of life and the phone banks that had been established, as well as information on 24-hour counseling and how to file tax forms for losses.

Customer and Vendor Reassurances

Although most corporations and agencies focus on internal utilization of high-speed notification technology, companies also use it to improve relationships with those outside these firms. With many corporations now using a secondary workforce of consultants, suppliers, vendors and contractors, most of which are off site, it is important to include these groups, if not in the initial activation, then, at a minimum, in follow-up messages. They need to know alternate business locations, whether to halt delivery of products or services, as well as instructions on how to proceed.

Another group that may need to be notified in the aftermath of a crisis is customers/clients who need to know when operations have returned to normal, business openings/closings or alternative locations for services and goods.

Typically, contact data for these groups may not be kept in the original emergency notification database, but with high-speed notification technology, can be imported from vendor and customer databases.

Conclusion

Corporations and agencies that implement high-speed notification technology in times of crisis realize the importance of incorporating these systems into their contingency plans. Moreover, by recognizing that crisis response systems can also be utilized in the planning and recovery phases, as well as day-to-day operations, companies can quickly maximize their investment in such technology.



Bill Carman is vice president of sales for DCC (Dialogic Communications Corporation) a high-speed notification technology company based in Franklin, Tenn., with more than 1,300 accounts in 24 countries.