The Federal Emergency Alert System
We are all familiar with the national public warning system called the Emergency Alert System (EAS). We hear the monthly test ringing from our televisions and radios, but here are a few things you may not know about the EAS.
The purpose of the system is not simply to provide the public with emergency information. The Federal Communications Commission requires broadcasters, cable television systems, wireless cable systems, satellite digital audio radio service providers, and direct broadcast satellite providers to provide the President with communication capability during a national emergency. The President, in essence, receives top priority across all modes of communication so his lines are clear, available, and uninterrupted during a national crisis.
These modes of communication have changed over time and include newer technologies the government is building into their emergency plan. An executive order was issued by President Barack Obama in 2012 to assign National Security and Emergency Preparedness (NS/EP) communications functions. The order stipulates that the Secretary of Homeland Security will oversee the organization and management structure for NS/EP communications functions and these would include, among other things, the “Next Generation Network Priority” program. This program enables users, the President being at the top, to have priority voice, data, and video communications “as the communications networks evolve.”
This is a significant distinction from emergency communications of the past and every organization should take notice. It isn’t often that our government is the first to adopt new technologies, yet here we clearly see they recognize the importance of implementing a “Next Gen” network of communication channels in their emergency plan. Has your organization followed suit?
What Companies Can Learn from the Federal EAS
If we look at the tragic events that have happened across our nation since 2000, we can see why a broad, multi-channel communication plan is needed. From 9/11 to Sandy Hook, from Hurricane Katrina to the tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri – it is clear why it is so important to have access to instant, real-time information through a range of channels.
Too many organizations across every sector still rely on outdated emergency plans plans that have failed to consider the available technology to bring the related communication systems into the 21st century. There may be a perception that the new technology is out of reach for strained budgets, particularly for school districts. It may be that the emergency alert plan hasn’t been used (or practiced) in so long, it has been forgotten. Of course, there are those who believe their system is just fine, even if it was designed decades ago.
The federal EAS has plenty to teach all of us and we owe it to our employees, students, staff, parents, and all those for whom we are responsible, the same forethought when it comes to protecting them. Taking a page from the FCC’s playbook, here are 5 things you should consider when developing your own EAS:
1. Work in Teams
The FCC works as a team, with multiple teams, to implement the Emergency Alert Service at the national level. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service (NWS), and the President each have different, yet equally critical roles in communicating alerts, warnings, and information to the public in the event of an emergency. The FCC sets out the EAS guidelines and the President determines when the EAS will be activated. FEMA receives the message and then activates the national EAS, as well as testing the system on a regular basis. Finally, the NWS uses the EAS on a local and statewide basis primarily for weather-related events.
Organizations can designate teams to work together on your own emergency alert plan. As with these government agencies, the teams may have alternative roles within the company but when it comes to emergencies, they immediately step into their positions.
One team can design the plan and work with an IT team to install the right technology to enable seamless communications. A team of business leaders can be designated as the “President,” determining when the alert system will be activated. A team of administrators periodically tests the system and activates it when ordered. Each team works in lock-step with one another to ensure the most efficient execution.
2. Include Multiple Communication Channels
Not everything happens just the way it was planned. The same thing is true for communication channels. A system may fail, or more probable, your employees use different channels for communicating. Relying only on email or phone trees does not protect those who may be more mobile. If your goal is to reach your audience quickly and reliably, you must take a multi-modal approach.
The government stipulates in its EAS plan, “If one link in the system for spreading emergency alert information is broken, members of the public have multiple alternative sources of warning.” If there is a power outage in your organization, for instance, your alert system must have multi-channel delivery capabilities to ensure other modes will be successful in relaying the important information. Phone, email, text messages, push notifications, social media posts, and custom channels can be integrated into an emergency alert app. This will ensure messages can be sent across all channels automatically and simultaneously.
3. Repurpose the System for Other Uses
The federal EAS is used for more than communicating with the public during a national emergency. It is also used by state and local authorities to deliver alerts and warnings, such as AMBER (missing children) and SILVER (missing elderly) alerts. By extending the system’s functionality, the government is able to leverage existing technology instead of investing in additional technology, and provide this technology to other areas of the government.
Organizations can do the same and achieve greater ROI in the process. An alert notification system can be integrated with internal HR systems to simplify the process of creating directories and custom lists. Messages, even non-emergency information, can be delivered in real time to employees on the devices they use most frequently.
There are multiple use cases for a corporate Emergency Alert System beyond emergencies, such as delivering information about corporate news and events, reminders, impromptu conference calls, dispatching and scheduling, surveys, and event planning. Whenever a group of employees or the entire workforce needs information, the system is a reliable way to deliver it.
4. Ensure System Is Two-Way
The federal EAS allows participating providers to “send and receive emergency information quickly and automatically, even if their facilities are unattended.” The government understands the flow of information goes both ways. It’s not always the administrators and business leaders who have the best intel. Often, the people on the ground can provide eye-witness accounts and document it on video or in photos from their mobile devices. Equally important is that the communication system can be activated remotely, preferably from a mobile device.
Companies should recognize their employees may need to respond to alerts and notifications. Make sure your corporate EAS enables them to engage, upload photos and videos, ask questions, make comments, and become part of the solution. Choose which channels best afford these opportunities or create message boards, forums, social media sites, intranet sites and/or other ways for them to get involved. Not only can your employees often provide business leaders and first responders with valuable insight, they will feel valued and more in control when a crisis occurs.
5. Test Your Alert System Regularly
An integral part of the federal Emergency Alert System is testing the system through regular exercises. The FCC establishes specific procedures for those using the EAS to follow in the event it is activated. Based on these procedures, there are required EAS testing protocols. These tests are conducted so frequently, not only are the users familiar with the system, but most U.S. citizens are at least aware such a system exists.
Organizations must also test their system through a set protocol. It is not enough to simply test that the system is functioning. Exercises in the form of “what-if” scenarios must be conducted so in the event of an emergency, no time is wasted learning the system or correcting mistakes. The emergency alert system software you use should have a measurement feature to give you metrics on open rates per channel. The Emergency Alert System can be continually improved based on employee feedback, open rates, and other metrics.
The drills should be regular so that the administrators are clear on their roles and the employees know what to expect. One good way to test the system is to use it for non-emergency, less critical occasions, such as employee surveys. Much the same as a corporate-wide emergency, employee surveys are intended to reach every employee on the device they most prefer.
Getting Past the Roadblocks
If investing in an emergency alert system app seems out of reach, the FCC still has some lessons to teach us. If any sector is more challenged to getting budget approvals, it has to be the U.S. government. If they can get their EAS updated, there’s hope for business leaders in the private sector.
There are a few key steps an organization should take to avoid tricky roadblocks that can slow implementation:
1. Get executive support. The President of the United States issued an executive order to get all of the teams working together. Whether it comes from your president, CFO, CIO, or other executive(s), employees need to know the plan is under the supervision of and supported by the company’s leaders. The selection of the software, its integration with existing systems, its implementation, its testing, and its usage should include involvement by these key stakeholders.
2. Play the devil’s advocate. Determine “what-if” scenarios based on whether you use the current system as is, upgrade it to include multi-modal functionality with reporting capabilities, or don’t use a system at all. When money and IT resources are removed from the equation, how prepared is your organization? Are your employees as protected as they could be? What risks may present themselves with each scenario?
3. Do your homework. Request demos and free trials to get a real taste of what solutions are out there. Business leaders, finance, IT, and other key stakeholders will want to compare features, benefits, and cost of multiple software products. Seeing how the software works in your environment will help reduce surprises and demonstrate its ease of use, features, accessibility, and how well it integrates with existing systems. The ideal software will be easy to set up so it can be used quickly with little training required.
4. Include ROI in your metrics. Business leaders, particularly those concerned with budgets, will want to know what a new EAS will cost them. It’s one thing to tell them every employee life matters; it’s another to be able to explain to them how they can get more return from their investment while protecting their employees. A comprehensive emergency communication solution should be able to be extended for alternate uses and in other areas of the business.
Show stakeholders how the system will impact the success of the emergency plan, as well as internal communications, event planning, and external communications.
Organizations, large and small, can benefit from a modern emergency alert system. As the old adage goes, “It’s not a matter of if, but when.” Emergencies will happen and it’s during those times when the quality and comprehensiveness of your EAS will matter most.
Every emergency plan needs to include a solid communications strategy that is capable of reaching every employee in harm’s way. It should deliver instant and real-time communications across multiple channels. It should be simple to use, integrate with existing internal systems if necessary, be reliable, and always secure.
If your current communication system fails in any one of these core capabilities, follow steps one through four above. In less time than you think, you can implement an effective EAS customized to your culture, your requirements, and your employees.