Dec 16 2009

Emergency Notification Systems Get the Word Out

State and local agencies deploy IP-based products that support everything from voice to texting and even social media.
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There's a security threat at city hall. A water main has broken, flooding the basement of the courthouse. A tornado is churning toward the mayor's office. A suspicious package just arrived in the mailroom at a jail. The police have cordoned off the neighborhood near the Department of Motor Vehicles, and traffic is backed up for miles.

No matter what the emergency, you need to notify a lot of people in a hurry. How do you do it?

As the events of Sept. 11 and the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech tragically proved, yesterday's technologies -- sirens, calling trees and the emergency broadcast network -- are no longer enough.

That's why state and local agencies are adopting IP-based solutions that integrate a wide range of communications technologies, from voice to texting to Twitter.

If a crisis threatens the Philadelphia metro area, ReadyNotifyPA is on call. Based on Cooper Notifications' Roam Secure Alert Network, this system connects five southeastern Pennsylvania counties and a nearby county in New Jersey, blasting out text alerts to phones, computers, pagers, social networks and even flat-screen TVs on newsstands in downtown Philadelphia.

"We want to use as many tools as possible because you never know where people will tune in during an emergency," says MaryAnn Tierney, deputy managing director of emergency management for the city of Philadelphia.

Approximately 96% of the United States is covered by some type of 911 service.

Still in an early phase, ReadyNotifyPA has signed up more than 6,700 subscribers, Tierney says, with another 11,000 following updates on social networking sites. To encourage citizens to sign up, the system offers free traffic and weather alerts, and plans to add crime alerts.

Similarly, when a water main broke in Arlington County, Va., before Thanksgiving, closing a major traffic artery, the county used Roam Secure to route drivers around the incident, says Arlington's Chief Information Security Officer David Jordan.

As with most ENS technology, Roam Secure can send alerts to select groups. The county has issued more than 700 alerts this year, Jordan says, but only a few dozen were broadcast to all of the county's subscribers.

Jordan says other agencies looking to install an ENS should think about partnering with universities, businesses or military installations in their area.

"There's no reason why the local government should have one alert system, the school board another, a major employer a third," he says. "These systems are very scalable. This kind of technology saves lives and isn't very expensive. We don't generally get too many breaks like that."

Once you've deployed an ENS, the hard work is just beginning, warns Bo Mitchell, president of 911 Consulting and a former Connecticut police commissioner.

An effective notification system must be part of a comprehensive emergency response plan, which entails far more than dialing 911 and pinning an evacuation map to the wall. This is where 99 percent of organizations fail, Mitchell says.

Mitchell's advice is to establish a command and control infrastructure. Everyone needs to know who has the authority to issue an alert, who needs to receive it, and who's responsible for keeping everyone updated as the situation unfolds.

Everyone -- not just safety coordinators -- must be schooled about what to do in case of emergency. Organizations need to train all their personnel, run regular drills on the system, and assess what works and what doesn't. Tabletop exercises, a fast and inexpensive way to test your plan and train your staff, should be held every three to four months.

You also must be able to perform a headcount, so you know if someone is on vacation rather than trapped at the DMV. Mitchell has developed a technology called 911 Headcount that lets employees check in via their phones or PCs when a crisis hits.

"This is a 100 percent business," says Mitchell. "If one person gets injured or worse because your emergency response plan was flawed, you've failed."

Tips for an Emergency

  • Think multimode. You'll need to issue alerts to a wide range of devices, from phones and computers to TV sets and loudspeakers. Ideally, a single ENS will talk to all devices you need to reach.
  • Plan to send multiple alerts. People may miss the first alert or not take it seriously. Or, you may need to reach them on a specific device. And you'll need to keep them updated as the situation changes.
  • Script your outgoing alerts before a crisis hits. Even then, you'll have to customize your alerts for each situation.
  • Encourage participation. Employees may be automatically enrolled in an ENS, but systems that alert the general public are usually voluntary. Encourage the community to sign up by offering useful daily information such as traffic or weather updates.
  • Have a backup plan. Generators may fail, and cell phone service may become overloaded. In a worst-case scenario you might need a low-tech way to spread the word.