When Seconds Count, Does Your Emergency Communications System Measure Up?
Integrating all your warning systems and networking them is mass notification.
Be proactive about messaging and integration, experts say.
By Joel Shore

Known alternatively as Mass Notification Systems, Emergency Communications Systems or Critical Response Notification, the aim of this technology is to unite disparate telephone, fire alarm, text or instant messaging, e-mail, public address, digital signage and warning siren systems into a comprehensive, seamless environment. Do it right and you can control them all simultaneously through your network with a single mouse click. Do it wrong or take too long, and you put lives a stake. Fortunately a well-thought out system can reduce many risks.

Tips for Implementing a Mass Notification Solution

Best Practices:
It is important to have multiple communications modalities available. Do not rely on just text or voice mail. Also, use the systems to account for personnel: When you send an alert message, you can have people respond back with their status or location.

Pain Points:
Homegrown systems are fine for many disciplines, but emergency notification is not one of them. Work with an organization that has a track record of implementations.

Trends:
Mobile apps are maturing and can be used for personnel to initiate alerts by reporting an incident. Reporting in is no less important than getting the word out. Geotracking capability allows the emergency center to track the location of first responders; in an emergency it identifies who is closest and can respond quickly.

Budget Savers:
While it is appropriate to invest in a comprehensive emergency communications infrastructure, it is wise to choose which capabilities should remain on-site and which can be handled by a service provider. Not only can this minimize expenditures, it can also improve efficiency and ease the burden of an IT lacking emergency preparedness expertise.

“In the last decade, as a society we have moved forward in awareness, primarily due to natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, the increasing number of tornadoes in the past two years and, unfortunately, in workplace and campus violence,” says Ketan Joshi, vice president of New Markets and Corporate Development at AtHoc, a San Mateo, Calif. provider of mass notification systems for the security, life safety and defense sectors. As a top supplier to the federal government, AtHoc currently protects more than two million personnel throughout the U.S. Military, Dept. of Homeland Security and other government agencies.

Add oil spills to the disasters list. As the U.S. Coast Guard worked to contain the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it relied on a mass notification solution from AtHoc.

“The Coast Guard used an IP-based emergency mass notification system as an internal communications and response tool. By using network-centric alerting, we could quickly notify the community and process critical information much faster,” says Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Ted Kim. “The system’s ability to collect information from all alert recipients also gave us unprecedented situational awareness. The result is the ability to make better decisions and communicate the information quickly to all stakeholders.”

Mass notification is not just for emergencies, though that constitutes the vast majority of installations. At the Children’s Discovery Museum in San Jose, Calif., a mass notification solution from React Systems provides both critical emergency communications and exhibit interaction through digital signage displays, right down to personalized birthday greetings. As a side benefit, the museum believes that enhanced communication efficiency may help staffing overhead.



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