Not Your Typical S.O.S.

Mass Notification Systems (MNS), known as Emergency Communication Systems (ECS) have come a long way. Many campuses have gone from implementing horns, sirens,speakers and other sounders to audio evacuation with messaging and presently such systems have transitioned to subscriber-based communications. And while these newer systems don’t always meet in-building emergency communications systems codes adherent to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) or the Department of Defense (DOD), they have become an interactive forum, both in emergency and non-emergency situations for many schools and municipalities.

“People want to know what’s going on in their community or at a local school without having to rely on just press releases to the media,” explained Lt. Patrick Halleran of the California-based Belmont Police Department. “They want to know the news before it hits the paper.”

Laguna Hills, Calif.-based Rapid Notify is one provider that has spent the last 25 years supplying government agencies, municipalities and educational institutions across the country with a Web-based emergency notification system.

“What’s nice about Rapid Notify is because it is Internet-based, we can launch a mobile message to a neighborhood from the scene of an incident, notifying people of a hazardous spill or road blockage,” Halleran added. Located 20 miles south of San Francisco, the Belmont Police Department has been using the Rapid Notify system for the past 10 years. “The map-based interface is what we primarily use when we want to send a particular message out,” he continued. “Our public works department uses it so frequently that they now launch their own messages using the software but they also use other mediums of communication such as Twitter. It’s very common for people to say ‘send a Rapid Notify message’ because it has become everyday business.”

Rapid Notify’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping capability enables users to define an area on a map they want to contact and pull up just the phone numbers for the residents in that defined area. The self-registration portal ensures that user information is secure via opt-in and opt-out capability.

“Residents who don’t have landlines can self-register up to three other phone numbers, an SMS service number and an email address to manage their contact account,” said Steve Sipe, president of Rapid Notify.

In addition, the town’s private and public high schools and university each operate off their own Rapid Notify system to facilitate their own campus messages and alerts to their subscriber base.

“We wanted to empower the schools to launch their own messages,” said Halleran. “We didn’t want the schools to have to call us if they wanted to send out an alert that the school is going to be closed for the rest of the afternoon because of a power outage. That’s a targeted message specific to their campus that we don’t necessarily have to send out to the other 26,000 citizens of the city.”

 Across the nation

Guernsey County Emergency Management Agency in Cambridge, Ohio also contains three school districts that operate their own system independent of the Rapid Notify software that the county uses.

“And our schools know that they are welcome to use the system that we have as their primary or as a back-up,” explained Gerry Beckner, director, Guernsey County EMA. “Our intended use for the system was to get out those mass notification alerts to our public officials during a public disaster and to get out any other type of information they need in a hurry.” And while the agency also relies on such social mediums as Facebook and Twitter to additionally get information out to the public, they do not advocate depending on such forums for emergency situations.

“We are contingent on having the Rapid Notify service available, knowing we can release information at a particular time,” Beckner explained, citing one incident which the county had to notify the community of a boil alert with the public water system.

The system, available 24/7 also provides a customer support team which can activate an alert on a customer’s behalf in the event of a power outage. And for the Belmont Police Department, that is also a role they take in such a case with the local schools. “Our university can call us to get on their account and launch that alert for them,” confirmed Halleran.

“I’ve been with this department 32 years and things have definitely changed in that span of time,” he added. “One of the biggest things is that people want more information—they want more transparency from their government and cities—and systems like Rapid Notify and other means of communication are the way to do that. We have to communicate with people in the way they want to be communicated with.”