Emergency Notification System Considerations – Part 2

Posted: February 8, 2011 in EAS, IPAWS, PublicWarning, SMEM

Yesterday we took a very broad look at things to consider when selecting an emergency notification system for an organization.  Today I would like to focus on specific things that should be considered if your system will emphasize providing notifications internally within your organization and to your response partners. There are several reasons that we may want and/or need a system to do such:

  • Provide Situational Awareness of emerging or ongoing events in order to maintain a Common Operating Picture and ensure response readiness as a situation escalates.
  • Inform staff of operational closings and/or the need to report to an alternate work site as part of a Continuity of Operations Plan.
  • Request staff and response partners to respond to an EOC, incident site, or staging location.

Capturing Response Data
One of the first things what we must consider with this type of system is the ability that it has to capture information from the message recipient.  In each of these notification examples we likely wish to have the ability to confirm that the message was actually received by the recipient as well as potentially additional information regarding their ability to respond.  The key here is that we will want to leverage the technology to capture this information on our behalf either through eliciting a text based response to the the message or through the utilization of a touch tone response to a phone call.

The system should be flexible enough to allow the individual initiating the message to create a layer of responses. For example, a message notifying staff and response partners that an EOC is activating may with to elicit if the individual is available for duty as well as determining their Estimated Time of Arrival to the EOC. Capturing this data electronically should allow the individual responsible for making the notification to know if they will have any staffing shortages as well as how long they can expect it to take for the EOC to be fully operational.

Recognizing Positions
If your system will be utilized to activate an EOC or specialty response team, it can be very useful for the system to recognize individuals as filling positions. That is to say that perhaps your jurisdiction’s HAZMAT team has three medical specialists but only one is needed for an emergency. If your system recognizes positions, it can provide an activation message requesting the primary medical specialist to respond and a message to your “backup” medical specialists that the team is being deployed however their response is not required. In the event that the system was unable to confirm that the “primary” medical specialist was available to respond it would automatically request that the next qualified individual to fill that position make their response. Use of positions in this was can greatly reduce the amount of human intervention required to activate resources.

Notification Mediums
Any notification system must be capable of utilizing the maximum number of distribution mediums possible. At a MINIMUM a system procured for internal and partner notification should include the following distribution methods:

  • Email
  • SMS (Text Messaging)
  • Voice (Telephone)

There are a few questions to ask a vendor when evaluating their notification products for these basic notification channels. Distribution of mass messages to email servers and cell phone provider’s SMS gateways routinely causes these providers to identify emergency notification messages as spam and either block or throttle the dissemination of messages. It is critical that the vendor have a working relationship with key email providers and gateways to ensure that their servers remain on “white lists” that identify notification messages as not being spam. The same is true of SMS (Text) messages however arguably even more critical. The vendor must maintain close partnerships with cellular providers to ensure that their messages are not blocked or throttled by the SMS gateway that receives the message to pass it to the cellular towers for delivery. Ideally, the vendor will have dedicated delivery paths to cellular providers that bypass standard SMS gateways and provide priority routing for emergency messages.

In addition to the basic delivery methods of email, SMS, and voice a jurisdiction should consider soliciting the following options for message delivery:

  • Desktop (Computer pop-up) notifications
  • Pager (SNPP) delivery
  • Blackberry PIN delivery
  • Fax delivery
  • LED Sign Board triggering
  • Public Address System activation

Although each of these additional options have a specific role that they fill, one or all of them may be appropriate for many jurisdictions. A notification system that will be used to notify an office building of the need to evacuate and/or initiate a Continuity of Operations Plan could highly benefit from desktop notifications as well as LED sign board and public address system activation.  A hospital that still utilizes alpha-numeric pagers for its staff would certainly want to ensure that their system provides direct access to the paging vendor’s SNPP gateway. Finally, although ofter overlooked in our digital age, a notification system used to alert various other offices may benefit from the ability to deliver a message by fax.

Location & Discipline
If a system will be utilized to provide situational awareness of events, particularly if the audience is large, a significant emphasis should be placed on the ability of the system to target alerts based on geographic preference as well as the type of event or discipline of the recipient. Imagine the amount of information pushed by a system used to provide situational awareness for an entire state. An official responsible for one end of the state almost certainly has little interest in minor events unfolding at the opposite end of the state. The same is true in that a fire chief likely has little interest in a relatively minor public works issue. Ideally in this situation your system will permit recipients to select what information is relevant to them both on a geographic basis as well as the type of event.

Message Creation
If your system includes a telephone notification component, you will want to examine the method that is utilized to create the voice message.  While some jurisdictions are comfortable with the text-to-speech capability that some systems offer, others may find that they either experience pronunciation problems or that their audience quickly disconnects from the automated message with the assumption that it is associated with telemarketing or collections activities. Most systems provide the ability to record your own voice message during activation. This can be achieved either through dialing a special telephone number for the vendor and the system recording your message via telephone, recording your message through a computer and uploading it to the system, or through a direct recording interface within the notification platforms activation screen. If sound quality and activation time are critical to your notification program it is highly advantageous to be able to record your message directly into the application. With that said, the ability to also be able to record a message via telephone provides greater flexibility to activate the system from virtually any location.

Although we will explore the issue of interoperability more fully when we discuss system integration, it is important to note that any system used for internal and stakeholder notification must support interoperability with other systems. This will allow officials that receive notifications from your system to also be alerted to situations that are highly relevant to them but issued via the notification system of a neighboring jurisdiction, another department within the jurisdiction, or aggregated from a partner such as the National Weather Service. There are a few ways to achieve this functionality. A vendor may either provide their own internal support for interoperability as is the case with Cooper Notification’s Roam Secure Alert Network RSIX platform and/or through integration with the federal IPAWS aggrigator program.

The very nature of an emergency notification system requires it to be survivable.  As a result it is critical that the system that we implement must be deployed to ensure the highest level of redundancy possible. If our system is managed in-house (the hardware is physically under the control of your own staff) we should seek a contract with the vendor to provide a back-up server that is synchronized in real-time with our primary in-house server but located off-site and under the control of the vendor. Likewise, if we select an option that is entirely hosted by the vendor, we should ensure that we receive specific information regarding the level of redundancy and diversity of their data centers. We should ensure that the data-centers utilized by the vendor are as robust and hardened as possible and that any redundant servers provided are housed at a separate data-center from the primary server. Ideally, if the primary hosted data-center is located on the East Coast the back-up data-center would be hosted on the West Coast.

In our next post in this series we will examine considerations for system used to warn the public.
Part 3


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