Emergency communications & mass notification

An exclusive roundtable-in-print

Giannini: We always recommend a multi-layered approach to emergency communications as the best way for end-users to deliver emergency messages across their enterprise. Our strategy is to help customers leverage the investments they have already made in life-safety infrastructure, such as fire alarm systems with voice evacuation capability. Visual notification solutions such as LED message boards or flat screen information displays should be incorporated into the plan. An end-to-end solution can also include: High Power Speaker Array (HPSA) systems, also known as "Giant Voice" systems, for wide area exterior applications; and personal notification (wireless) systems, also known as text messaging subscription services.

Brummel: A complete, end-to-end mass notification system combines systems capable of multiple levels of communication. First and foremost is a Public Address system closely tied to an emergency phone. Having the phone control the public address amplifier minimizes energy draw and permits cost-effective installations, as one pair will operate both systems. Secondly, a user-friendly GUI enables the end-user to tailor multiple or group notifications and programming to their specific campus - both indoors and outdoors. Finally, Voice Call/CAP/SMS/e-mail systems provide secondary coverage.

Sipe: A comprehensive mass communication plan should include the ability to send alerts via telephone, e-mail and SMS text message and allow for real-time reporting on delivery status. The system should include mapping capability through a Geographic Information System (GIS) to enable users to select alert recipients based on their physical location. In addition, the ability to get an interactive response from recipients on a selective basis is critical.

Shanes: There are certain combinations of technologies that work best for any given situation. The question that one should ask is what type of events will have to be covered by the mass notification system? Weather emergencies and other events where location is irrelevant can be handled by a mass blast through a High Power Speaker Array or digital message delivery via e-mail or SMS. An intruder on campus event, on the other hand, would require a series of targeted broadcasts (audio or visual) to specific segments of a community.

Miasnik: Today's solution should focus on a network-based, bi-directional, rich-media communication. Such solutions should collect incident alerts from various inputs like fire panels, video surveillance and weather service and disseminate relevant messages - including situation-specific instructions and video clips - via multiple, redundant alerting channels. The end-to-end solution must also collect and report responses from recipients to ensure message delivery.

Milburn: Instead of relying on just one technology to communicate critical information in an emergency, multiple communication systems help ensure that information will successfully reach your audience. The "System of Systems" approach to emergency communications include sending text messages and e-mails, distributing automated voice calls, broadcasting alerts over indoor or outdoor mass notification systems, using display signs, desktop alerts and social media.

STE: How can end-users overcome the problems with e-mail and text messaging delays, or overwhelming the system, in a mass notification setting?

Brummel: The hierarchy of these tools and capacity constraints must be considered when looking at the overall picture. Several considerations: Use a remote or online hosted solution by which the host has contracted with the LEC/IXC carriers for large bandwidth capabilities and TDM capacity; or, for locally hosted solutions, purchase or negotiate a contract with the LEC for large bandwidth capabilities and TDM capacity.

Miasnik: E-mail and text messaging are just basic communication vehicles that are inherently not designed for an emergency mass notification scenario. Relying on them as the sole means of warning would be a mistake. The use of IP network technology - delivery to online computers, VoIP phone displays via direct and reliable communication protocols provides assured delivery within a designated time frame (typically 1-3 minutes to 10,000 users/devices). In parallel, integrating alternate devices such as sirens, radio transmission and display boards, further ensures message delivery.

Milburn: Under routine, non-emergency conditions, low-volume messaging will be transmitted through wireless carriers without delay and at a high success rate; however, in an actual emergency when volume is high, delayed messages or failure of delivering messages greatly increases. Selecting a dedicated notification system that offers direct connectivity with major wireless carriers, white listing with major ISPs, geo-dispersed, secure data centers, and multiple redundant servers, greatly improves reliability.