School and DoDEA leaders, in concert with military police, coordinate the decision to send an alert "so as not to create a panic," CIO Jeffrey Friedler says.
Nov 04 2008

Listen Up

Feds and experts relay 5 smart ideas for emergency notification.

Now, we must alert our employees. That’s what an agency leader thinks the moment a crisis occurs.
For agencies, the ability to use mass notification has become increasingly important to continuity of operations planning. Feds and experts impart tips that take a holistic approach to reaching workers across thousands of agencies and literally millions of networks and devices.

ONE: Be Technology Neutral

For the IT team at the Patent and Trademark Office, sending alerts to all of its employees means overcoming a major hurdle: making sure the notice reaches them wherever they are working at that moment.

“We have a very mobile workforce, and our patent examiners might work different hours on different days in different places,” says Deputy CIO Deborah Diaz. “We try to make our uses technology-agnostic and leave all avenues of technology open.”

PTO IT also supports nearly 4,400 employees who telework. For COOP purposes, PTO has deployed AtHoc’s emergency notification software agencywide (to all 11,780 employees and contractors) to send alerts and track responses via Internet Protocol service.

TWO: Use Common Protocols

“No one messaging system can satisfy every situation,” says Lance Graver, director of integrated public alert and warning systems at FEMA. For that reason, his group has focused its efforts on the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP).

“We provide backbones for alerts and warnings but don’t manage the various jurisdictions’ use,” Graver says. “We’re working to make the pieces of the existing systems interoperable” through the emergingIntegrated Public Alert and Warning System.

FEMA plans to adopt CAP in early 2009. The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) developed the interoperability protocol for all types of emergency warning systems. OASIS is an open-standard template for simultaneous, networked transmission of messages by disparate paths, and it works over IP as well as broadcast networks.

THREE: Test and Retest

One requirement of the White House’s post-Sept. 11 COOP mandate calls for agencies to be able to evacuate their offices in less than 15 minutes. That can’t happen without a viable alert system that notifies employees of what to do and when, in the appropriate sequence, notes the Office of Management and Budget in its COOP guidance.

In 2002, the Commerce Department realized it couldn’t meet the 15-minute requirement without a centralized mechanism to simultaneously contact the 4,000 employees at its headquarters in Washington.

The Commerce dilemma ultimately led to the creation of InformaCast, a notification system developed by CDW Berbee, that runs on an IP network composed of Cisco Systems routers, switches and phones at the department. Commerce ran multiple tests, trying different geographic routing schemes. Now, it can notify all 4,000 employees in 90 seconds.

The Department of Defense Education Activity is testing InformaCast now as a possible tool for use. More than 84,000 K–12 students spend their days at schools run by the agency. DoDEA has begun a pilot to determine how best to notify its schools — all 192 worldwide if need be — in the event of an emergency. The need to send “all-call” alerts across multiple platforms is a chief driver behind the initiative, CIO Jeffrey Friedler says.

DoDEA has rolled out InformaCast at its schools at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Stewart, Ga. It transmits alerts via the schools’ Voice over IP phone systems and can break in on current calls. Friedler notes that the schools also use it on their IP speaker systems, and some are also upgrading their bell systems.

Before deciding on a final system, “we must ensure that everyone’s requirements are met, to include notification capabilities inside and outside of our schools,” Friedler says.

FOUR: Set Priorities

The plan for pushing emergency notifications is comparable to triage at the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, which is currently deploying AtHoc. It requires thinking through who most needs the information and why, says Herbert Wolfe, director for operations, plans, force protection and force health protection.

The bureau is setting notification priorities: who’s notified first of a crisis, who sends the message and who tracks its receipt. The bureau also plans to push information to multiple devices for each user, Wolfe says. Each notification will follow redundant paths, displaying on desktop computers as well as ringing up users’ phones.

FIVE: Multiply Your Efforts

Finding ways to cross platforms and reach users anywhere at anytime continues to be a challenge. The American National Standards Institute has issued draft guidelines for emergency alert systems.

The chief issue is making sure that all necessary information moves with an alert and remains available as receiving devices change, says Dan Bart, chief technology officer of the Telecommunications Industry Association. The ANSI work is “in sync with CAP,” he says. “We believe CAP will be useful for alert messages. It contains most of the information that needs to be passed.”

ANSI recommends alert systems that are multimodal — capable of text and instant messaging, as well as phoning, e-mail and web posting. And systems should be capable of sending to entire recipient directories.

Photo: Nicholas McIntosh