Dec 16 2009

Emergency Notification Systems Get the Word Out

Federal agencies deploy IP-based products that support everything from voice to texting and even social media.

There's a threat at a Defense Department office building. A water main has broken, flooding the basement at an IRS office. A tornado is churning toward a federal courthouse. A suspicious package just arrived in the mailroom at an administration office. The police have cordoned off the neighborhood near a federal building, 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 federal agencies are adopting IP-based systems that integrate a wide range of communications technologies, from voice to texting to Twitter.

After a hostage crisis at Johnson Space Center in April 2007, NASA knew it needed a better way to inform its people during an emergency.

This fall the space agency implemented Singlewire Software's InformaCast at its Washington, D.C., headquarters, integrating the ENS with the agency's Cisco IP phone and data networks.

“If we're in a hostage situation, we don't want the floor where the hostage taker is to know what's going on, but we still need to inform the rest of the building,” says Mike Barrett, telecommunications manager at NASA headquarters.

“With InformaCast, we can selectively send messages to all floors, specific floors or all floors but one. We can also send on-screen pop ups to specific PCs and Macs.”

InformaCast's versatility is what sold them on the system, adds Danny Gear, IT support contract telecommunications supervisor. It lets them send text or audio to random individuals scattered throughout a building.

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

Source: National Emergency Number Association

Versatility is also the watchword at the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md. NIH is virtually a small city of 18,000 employees, complete with its own hospital, police and fire departments, says Michael Spillane, NIH's director of emergency preparedness and coordination. To get the word out, NIH uses AlertNIH, an ENS that subscribes to SWN Communications' Send Word Now alerting and response service.

NIH employees can be notified via e-mail, voice or text on up to five devices, in whatever order they choose, Spillane says. Send Word Now’s “get word back” feature lets employees verify that they received a message by replying or pressing a keypad button — an easy way to do headcounts during a crisis. 

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 is 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 perform a headcount, so you know if someone is on vacation, rather than trapped on the 11th floor. 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.”