This week I read an article about Canada’s struggle to unify its emergency alert system. Major Canadian cities frequently use differing systems and often those systems are unintegrated, causing the mass alert system to be inefficient and even dangerous with its omissions. As the author put it, “…the audiences for those warning are often scattered across a vast region, and the organizations that broadcast them can differ as much as the methods they use to communicate.”
While this is speaking about Canadian cities, it struck me how similar their challenges are to just about any organization worldwide. Organizations, too, struggle to find an emergency alert system that works not just for some, but for all. With so many companies comprised of a dispersed workforce that use differing devices and channels, the issue becomes less about the emergency message and more about how to get it to every employee, near and far. Leaving even one employee in the dark could mean the difference between life and death.
An Integrated Approach
Canada and other countries are no different from the companies within them – how do you integrate communication systems so they can be equally and simultaneously leveraged in the event of an emergency or a critical event? Just as a government is committed to serve and protect its people, companies are obligated to do the same for their employees. Employees are counting on it, yet there is plenty of evidence few organizations have figured out the best way to go about it.
Many of the world’s largest countries, including the U.S., Canada, and Australia, have implemented a Wireless Public Alerting System (WPAS), enabling emergency alerts to be sent to all mobile devices within a cellular tower coverage that is affected by an incident. This is akin to an organization sending an alert to mobile phones of employees in a particular geographic location which may be in danger or need critical information delivered quickly. Sounds great until you realize not everyone may have cell coverage. What about those employees in more remote locations or those in a cell coverage “hole?”
To combat this, many organizations and municipalities are finding additional means of communication. Other methods for citizens to obtain critical information and alerts sometimes require pre-registration or opt-in requirements, such as to receive text or email notifications. Residents often decline such invitations, if in fact they even know of the opportunity.
Organizations, on the other hand, may not require employees to register for emergency alerts as they are automatically enrolled, but many organizations use the mass alert system externally for occasions other than emergencies. These situations often do require pre-registration, such as with events, volunteer coordination, etc. While in these cases the mass notification system is used more for organizing, scheduling, and marketing, there are times when critical alerts may be necessary, such as weather-related events, power outages, and natural disasters.
If a guest at a company-sponsored event, for example, declined the opt-in offer to receive event notifications, they would not receive the alert about the only road leading to the event being shut down due to emergency flooding. In this situation, the company is still responsible for that guest’s safety and the current emergency alert system would be ineffective.
Both Alberta, Canada and many U.S. companies are recognizing the need to integrate multiple channels under a single mass alert system umbrella; where the term “mass” can be extended to define not just the people for which the alert is intended, but for the number of channels required to effectively reach as many people as possible. By combining mass texting, push notifications, website updates, email, phone, mobile apps, RSS feeds, social media, and other channels, organizations can confidently connect with any population of people with up-to-the-minute information. Only those employees who are completely “off the grid” may miss the notification, considerably narrowing the potential for uninformed staff.
Two-Way or No Way
One of the best advantages of an integrated, modern mass alert system is the ability to provide people with two-way communication. Public address systems of the past only blasted emergency alerts, giving people information but neglecting the power of the people to contribute valuable information.
Today’s culture is much different. With social media, in particular, people have become part of the stories they document, as they unfold. Regular citizens provide eye-witness accounts and live videos of events, as well as commentary, insight, and feedback. These ground-level accounts of situations not only inform the public of what’s really going on, but give first responders and public safety officials invaluable insight into the chronological order of events, the needs of the people involved, and a play-by-play of the event itself. This intel helps shape strategy, align proper response personnel, inform surrounding areas of potential danger, and better direct people in harm’s way.
Muting these self-proclaimed reporters by removing their ability to respond to alerts seems archaic these days. People expect to be part of the conversation as well as part of the solution. Companies must provide this conversational, two-way dialogue in their emergency communication plan as much as for the company as for the employees. Mass alerts can include links to additional information and forums, provide a social media page where employees can upload pictures and videos, construct message boards in mobile apps, and much more to encourage participation.
The New Lifeline
Countries, cities, and organizations large and small all struggle to keep up with changing technology and cultural shifts. As we all become more dependent on mobile technology, our devices will become even more of a lifeline. Like the American Express ads suggested a few decades ago regarding its credit cards, it’s now our smartphones we rarely leave home without.
An interesting side note in the above mentioned article was that there was an idea at one point in the 1990s to microchip citizens so they could receive alerts if they were in a geographic area. The idea, thankfully, was discarded with the evolution of cell phones. Our devices have become another appendage. Like this idea or not, it may be what saves us in the event of an emergency. Governments and organizations alike must determine how to leverage this technology to its fullest potential to keep their people safe and informed.
While mobile technology shouldn’t be the only answer when it comes to a mass alert system, it has proven to be the one channel most people are guaranteed to have with them. Integrate it with other communication channels to form a streamlined approach to emergency notifications. The goal isn’t to have 10 different channels that operate independently but to pull them all together under one operating solution that can trigger alerts across all channels simultaneously with minimal administrative effort.
The technology is still evolving but there are solutions out there right now that embrace this integrated approach. Find one that’s easy to implement and requires little training or support so your organization can begin using the functionality quicker to achieve maximum ROI. While protecting lives is ultimately the driving factor, companies must also conduct cost-benefits analysis to ensure whichever solution they choose can do the most good. Whether sending out emergency alerts or managing a major event, one integrated mass alert system can bring more value to an organization, and possibly a country, than any individual system ever could.
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