Emergency Communications Technology

Applications for mass notification solutions are rapidly maturing

Not all mass notification is about delivered voice signals. Many systems targeted at the corporate and institutional clients use digital messaging means — either exclusively or in addition to the voice delivery systems discussed above. The most commonly discussed technique is the use of cell phones to either deliver a voice or SMS message. The efficacy of this technique is dependent on the likelihood of an individual being aware of the new message (high probability) and the availability of telecommunications infrastructure to deliver the message (possibly of low probability in the event of a crisis).

The decision to use SMS (text) messaging as a crisis management tool should be carefully considered — especially in international applications. Domestic users should also discuss the role of cell phone company front-end aggregators in the SMS delivery chain. Leading providers of these services include MissionMode (www.missionmode.com), Send Word Now (sendwordnow.com) and Everbridge (www.everbridge.com).

The other notification means include desktop popups that deliver content directly to PC desktops. Most vendors can use this tool to deliver a variety of messages to targeted audiences. For example, one group might receive a text message directing them to shelter in place while another group might receive an evacuation directive complete with a map showing the safest route. These popups can also include .wav files to provide audible information. Finally, most providers offer content delivery through e-mail and faxes. As with the other techniques discussed above, the availability of telecommunications infrastructure is a necessity.

Maturing Applications

As these tools have matured, so has their application. Early concepts of operation focused on the perceived need to inform all affected parties about an impending or ongoing event. Take for example a hostile event on a corporate campus. One approach is to attempt to inform the entire corporate population of the event and provide evacuation or safe shelter instructions. This is based on the concept that the crisis managers, holding information about the ongoing incident (the threat) can provide informed instructions to those individuals that are not immediately threatened. For example, if the incident is on the east side of the campus, all individuals should evacuate to the west.

What crisis managers have been reminded of through actual experience and simulations is that the first priority is to communicate with the immediate response and management team. This enables them to collect sound data to make and disseminate clear directions and alleviates a number of problems. First, establishing reliable communication with the crisis managers provides a means to more easily and efficiently direct the team toward incident containment and ultimate resolution. Second, the limited number of individuals involved greatly reduces the risk of communication loss due to unreliable or unavailable wired or wireless communication paths. Third, the unrest among the marginally affected population can be severe upon receipt of notification of a local and potentially life threatening incident.

Tools for Crisis Management

In general, the services and notification techniques offered by the industry players has become a fairly standard suite. The key is now in the added tools that can enhance the efficiency of the crisis management team. MissionMode is one provider that has developed a collaborative Web service that serves as a virtual emergency operations center during an event. This service enables the key crisis managers to post and share real-time actionable information on a common forum. In turn, decisions based on the information can be disseminated to the key players from the same platform. This site can also be used to host needed resources, such as crisis management plan documents for easy access and retrieval. The number of individuals expected to access this site during event is limited, thus increasing the probability of available telecommunication infrastructure.

This body of product offerings has matured significantly over the last three years in terms of cohesive integration, IP centric solutions and reliability. The standards bodies have also updated their documents to address the widespread application of these systems. However, the real changes are the supporting tools that are being developed to enhance the efficiency of our response to true crisis events. Ultimately, tools like these will provide life saving actions in a crisis situation.