This is your one-stop resource for everything you need to know about emergency notification systems.
What is an Emergency Notification System?
Very simply: an emergency notification system is software that provides a simple, central interface used to send messages to any-size audience, on any device, over any communication channel, all over the world.
During an emergency or an event threatening widespread danger, the most critical step an organization can make is to quickly inform and alert people in harm’s way. How they do that varies widely but thanks to emerging technology and cultural shifts, emergency notification systems have become increasingly more effective in protecting people and the health of an organization.
Whether it’s a Fortune 100 business, a branch or agency of the government, an SMB, a nonprofit, a school, or any organization, getting a warning and/or instructions to the impacted people can be urgent and require immediate response. The notification system is designed to reach the largest audience across the most communication channels. These channels are continually expanding to include modern modes of communication while at the same time, decreasing reliance on only one channel.
In order to best understand where emergency notifications are heading in the future, we must look at the journey they’ve taken.
The Evolution of Emergency Notification Systems
Emergency notifications are not new, although the technology that enables them have matured quite a bit. Every culture both now and in the past have had a way to notify their people of impending danger. When possible, the system is used to provide these warnings in advance of the incident in order to give people enough time to protect themselves, their loved ones, their assets, and their property. When an unplanned event occurs, the system is aimed to coordinate people around a proper response to mitigate loss and return the organization to a normal operating condition. The more comprehensive the system, the more people can be safeguarded.
We can go back to the beginning of time to trace the evolution of emergency alerts. Before we had technology, warnings were verbal. Town criers and men on horseback would deliver the news to the community. While this technique may seem archaic given our reliance on devices like our smartphones, it was all these communities had. Word of mouth picked up where the initial alerts left off.
With the invention of the radio, more people could be reached without so much effort. In 1941, the unthinkable happened. The U.S. was attacked on home soil at Pearl Harbor. This catastrophic event gave rise to the first radio and network bulletin. Anyone within earshot of a radio, who happened to have the radio on, would have heard the same alert of the attack. Still, word of mouth was the primary carrier but the government successfully notified the American public of the event in a unified way.
For the next 10 years, radio was the primary vehicle to deliver warnings and news. It wasn’t until the Cold War that the U.S. government, led by Harry S. Truman, leveraged newer technology in the form of Control of Electromagnetic Radiation, or CONELRAD. Its purpose was to provide continuous broadcast of civil defense information via the television and radio. Built-in security features ensured Soviet bombers could not pick up the signal.
Once newer technology was developed to reduce the likelihood of a foreign bomber attack, a new alert system was put into place in 1963. According to the United States Defense Civil Preparedness Agency, the Emergency Broadcast System was established to “provide the President of the United States with an expeditious method of communicating with the American public in the event of war, threat of war, or grave national crisis.”
While there were no incidents requiring such use of the system, it was activated many times to broadcast local emergencies, particularly with warnings of severe weather threats. The idea was to connect the major news networks and FM radio stations into a single national network where a concise message could be delivered to the public despite their channel preference. This was a rather innovative design that reached the most people at that time in history.
By 1997, the Emergency Broadcast System was replaced yet again with the current Emergency Alert System. This system leverages television and radio, as well as the modern communication channels our culture has embraced, such as cable and satellite television, and landline phones. The government added on wireless devices with the Wireless Alert System in 2013. Together, the EAS delivers near-instant warnings, alerts, and information effectively across televisions, radios, landline phones, and mobile phones.
The Need for a Modern Alert System
Today’s emergency notification systems aren’t just for governments – all organizations need to communicate quickly and effectively around a critical event. According to the Business Continuity Institute, today, more than 50 percent of organizations use some form of emergency management software to reach their employees during a crisis. This hasn’t always been easy, particularly as workers began to work more remotely. Nearly 40 percent of American workers now telecommute and more than 50 percent are expected to work remotely by 2020.
Everyone recognized the need to reach more people and understood the reliance on mobile technology meant one thing: go mobile or exclude a significant portion of the audience. Many organizations have highly mobile employees who rarely, if ever, sit all day at a computer next to a landline phone with the radio or TV turned on. Instead, people are on the go, traveling, working remotely, and often working from a mobile device.
In order to keep everyone safe, no matter what device they are using in any part of the world, enterprise-level emergency notification solutions had to evolve to include any and all communication channels. Only a modern system can give organizations and employees peace of mind that they are protected and will be informed should an emergency or significant event occur.
Still, some organizations rely on older technology, believing that what worked in the past should still have the same effectiveness today. Even with modern technology, 83 percent of organizations rely on emails to communicate about emergencies. Warnings and information may be disseminated via email or voice calls, yet studies continually point to the reduced use of these channels. Millennials, for example, prefer texting and push notifications. The next generation coming up behind them believe email to be so obsolete, they rarely use it at all.
As communication preferences continue to shift, emergency mass notification systems must be flexible enough to keep up. Not all emergency notification software is created equal but there are several features to look for when considering which one is ideal for your environment.
Key Feature Requirements to Consider
How do you find emergency notification system software that will be right for your organization? There are at least 14 key features to evaluate to ensure the system does what it was intended to do: reach the most people the fastest.
Perhaps no other feature is as important as speed when it comes to emergency alerts. When seconds can mean the difference between life and death, you need a system that can be quickly activated before sending thousands of messages in less than a minute. The more steps and clicks, the longer your employees must wait to receive potentially life-saving warnings and instructions. And large audiences shouldn’t have to wait because of a carrier or technology bottleneck. You need a system capable of parallel delivery across all channels simultaneously so your entire audience receives the notification in seconds.
Some vendors will promise “immediate” activation with minimal effort but you won’t know how the system actually works until you use it in your own environment. Depending on how you use the system and your employee base, there could be variances in speed.
Multi-channel Notification Delivery
Each one of your employees likely has their own preference of communication channels they prefer and use most. If your notification system targets only one or two channels, you may miss a significant number of employees who may be in harm’s way. It is critical to find software that will enable you to select multiple communication channels to include in your alert.
Today’s communication channels differ from those even a decade ago, with many employees responding more reliably and faster to text messages and push notifications. Email and phone may lay a good foundation but chances are, many people are using mobile devices. Be sure you can reach them no matter where they are or what device they are using.
Message Customization per Channel
As much as communication channels differ, so too do the types of messages best suited for each channel. An email, for example, has the flexibility to contain lengthy instructions, attachments, links, and images. Push notifications, on the other hand, lend themselves to brief statements of only a few words.
It’s important to have the capability to choose your messaging to fit the channel(s) you are sending them across. Look for templates to help guide you, pre-built messages for the fastest creation, and customization ability when the situation requires a more personal approach. You should be able to easily decipher which message goes with which channel so no time is wasted.
If your company has a dispersed workforce, multiple locations, traveling employees, or remote workers, you will need an emergency notification product that will allow you to segment your target population. Your messages and alerts may not need to be sent to every employee. To ensure only the right people receive the right messaging, you want to be able to group your audience.
Audience grouping not only ensures the right audience receives the message but it also eliminates unnecessary messages being transmitted across the system. The more irrelevant messages people receive, the more they tend to ignore them and the system becomes less powerful. Use the system only when necessary to only the people in harm’s way.
Creating a message during an emergency can be stressful and waste precious seconds. A modern alert system will enable you to create pre-built messages for the most likely scenarios and use templates to guide you through message creation.
When evaluating emergency notification system vendors, ask to see their templates. Some offer the most basic templates that still require you to manually enter content and take several steps to finalize the message. Others will do more of the heavy lifting for you so in a matter of seconds, you have a perfectly relevant and concise message ready to send.
Mobile Applications for Android and iOS
One of the best parts about a modern alert system is that it is more likely to be built with mobile technology in mind. Older software may try to add this mobility as an afterthought, so be sure you find software that was designed specifically for mobile devices.
Users should be able to use the most popular iOS and Android devices to receive their push notifications, text messages, and social media posts while also being able to check email, voicemail, company intranet site, instant messaging, collaboration apps, and any custom applications your company may use. Emergency notification apps should also allow your admins to create messages on the go, sending notifications to potentially thousands of people with just a few clicks from the phone.
When seconds count, the less complex your emergency notification software, the faster and more accurately you can send the critical message or warning. The software should be so intuitive that little training is required. The fewer steps, tutorials, and practice required, the more the system will be effectively used.
As with the speed promises, be sure you see the emergency notification services in action so you can get a visual on exactly how easy (or not) the software is to implement, integrate with existing HR systems, and activate an alert. What a vendor considers “easy” may appear more like an administrative burden so watch a demo and trial the product to be certain your definitions are aligned.
When your employees are working outside of the office, it can be difficult to track their location when it comes to an emergency situation. They may be near an impending event or in immediate danger but how do you know?
Today’s emergency notification solutions can provide a map view of your employees so they can be constantly monitored in relation to an unfolding event. Whether it’s a hurricane or other weather event, a chemical spill, or any emergency where physical location is of concern, having a map view of every employee is the best way to keep them informed and provide them with appropriate instructions to stay safe.
Sometimes you need to reach a group of people in one specific location outside of your own facilities. Geo-fencing enables an administrator to draw a virtual fence around a particular area of concern on a map and send messaging to all employees within that fenced area.
This is particularly helpful during natural disasters, bomb threats, chemical or hazardous material spills, riots or protests, or less nefarious situations, such as major traffic delays. This kind of segmenting gives employees peace of mind that no matter where they go, their employer has their back.
In some circumstances, one-way messaging is all that is needed. This is how the federal EAS works – get the message out there and your job is done. In many situations, however, it’s beneficial to engage employees and allow them to respond either with questions, comments, photos, or videos. Employees who are in the middle of an unfolding situation can provide invaluable feedback to help first responders and other employees.
Find an emergency notification product that offers two-way communication on at least some of the channels. Not only can this information be helpful for those involved but it also provides a sense of community and support for those impacted.
To ease implementation and ongoing use, integrating the mass emergency notification system with existing systems, such as HR directories, is a must. These integrations will automate processes, such as populating the employee contact fields. These integrations can save critical time in reaching every employee on their channel preference as well as aid in audience segmentation.
Many integrations are pre-built and enable you to sync systems by installing a small software client – thus, easily pushing contact details from Active Directory or a CSV file into the emergency notification system. Other integrations might be more complex and require support with an API that enables you to read and write into the system. It’s imperative that you only partner with a technology that offers an API and comes supported with pre-built integrations. This will allow you to grow into an emergency notification system, and never out of one.
Reporting and Analytics
Every IT investment deserves adequate reporting to gauge its effectiveness. Emergency notification system software are no different. It’s not enough to purchase one and implement it. You need to know if it’s doing what it promised: reaching the intended audience quickly and reliably with the right messaging. And how are those recipients responding and reacting?
To understand how your organization reacts around an invent, relevant analytics should be offered. Vendors may vary in the analytics they provide, but basic metrics should include message delivery statistics, read receipts, survey results, delivery performance by channel, and replies which all help you ensure a coordinated audience.
Enterprise security should always be top of mind for your organization. An emergency notification system will store user data and messages often intended only for an internal audience. Additionally, global organizations must be considerate of international data privacy laws, and how personal data like a mobile number is stored and delivered country lines.
In order to reduce or eliminate your risk, an emergency alert system should provide proper protocols to protect your information. All of your information should be encrypted both in transit and at rest. The vendor should also maintain industry standard application security, measurement, and monitoring protocols to protect your business.
No matter how great the technology, if there isn’t underlying support to go with it, there’s a good chance you’re going to get frustrated and add costs. Customer support should extend beyond the sale and your vendor should take pride in their ongoing service level. Of course, the less complex the system is to use, the less likely you will need technical support. But issues inevitably come up where having a real person walk you through what to do is helpful.
Talk with prospective emergency notification system vendors to learn about their service offerings, how they are delivered and by whom, and when they are available. Configuring and implementing the system are two common reasons why you may need support. You may also want to talk best practices, have your group-based admins attend a training session, or chat about additional communication challenges your organization might be facing. Having a dedicated resource at your disposal helps you get the most out of your partner.
Who Needs An Emergency Notification System?
Emergencies can come from anywhere at any time. Any entity with more than a handful of employees should consider an emergency notification system to be an integral part of its business continuity plans. For organizations with employees who work remotely, travel, drive, or operate out of various corporate facilities, it is critical they can be reached across multiple channels instantly.
Emergency notification systems are ideal for businesses, healthcare facilities and hospitals, schools, nonprofits, member organizations, and any other organization that needs a unified communication platform. Your communication plans must include every employee, every student, every staff member, every remote worker. The best emergency notification software will enable any organization, private or public, to leverage the communication capabilities with any audience quickly.
Depending on where your organization and all of its facilities and employees are located, there will be varying threats. The most common threats, however, have the capacity to impact everyone. Not surprisingly, IT outages are the most common reason organizations activate their emergency notification plans. Here’s how other emergencies rank across organizations:
• 50% – IT outages
• 49% – weather-related incidents
• 47% – power outages
• 45% – natural disasters
• 42% – fire
• 38% – facilities management incidents
• 33% – security-related issues
• 32% – health and safety incidents
• 28% – cyber security incidents
• 24% – travel disruption
Every organization is susceptible to IT and power outages. These disruptions can last from seconds to days, causing companies to lose millions of dollars, customer market share, and a good reputation. Every area of the business can be affected as processes and operations come to a screeching halt. Consumers have become impatient and often won’t tolerate service interruptions. The faster a company can disseminate and relay information to its employees about the outage, the quicker the company can come back online or at the very least, take proactive steps towards managing the crisis. An emergency alert notification to all employees can help organizations efficiently manage such events.
Weather-related incidents differ based on location, but all organizations are at risk. While your organization can’t prevent a hurricane, tornado, deep freeze, severe weather, or flooding, it can give its employees plenty of warning of impending danger. It can provide relevant information about shelter locations, evacuation guidelines, and other safety precautions. Once an event occurs, you can use the emergency alert system to instruct your people on steps to get your business back up and running.
Fire is another threat every company faces, whether in the form of a wildfire or an internal fire. Evacuation routes may be posted in the building but an even more effective protective measure would be to activate the emergency notification system to email, text, call, send push notifications, update intranet and social media sites, and send notifications on custom channels. Using software that enables administrators to segment the employees based on their location is helpful in these situations as not every employee may be in harm’s way. Only those employees in immediate danger would need to receive such messages. After the event, the system can also be used to inform all employees of what happened.
Cyber threats are emergencies we don’t often immediately think of when we are considering emergency notification systems, yet they are an increasingly ominous threat to any organization. Data, particularly customer data, is in high demand. Deviants continually seek ways to exploit security weaknesses. It is estimated that cyber attacks already cost businesses as much as $400 billion per year and that number is expected to climb to $2 trillion by 2019.
Organizations must take these threats seriously and have a plan in place to effectively communicate with employees should an attack occur. The company will need to use the emergency notification system to inform employees as well as provide them with the intelligence they need to keep the business running, bring it back online as quickly as possible, and deal with the inevitable public fallout. Just as an IT or power outage, cyber threats risk interrupting or even halting business operations. Employees must know how to respond, both with consumers, partners, suppliers, and other stakeholders, and with critical business systems.
Emergency Notification Systems For More Than Emergencies
Mass communication systems can be used for more than emergencies. Any time an organization needs to reach a group or segment of its workforce rapidly and reliably, the system is preferable over lesser options, such as email or phone.
Business operations, for one, can greatly benefit from a unified communication system. An enterprise communication platform is all an organization needs to send secure notifications and efficiently manage employee operations. Processes such as scheduling shifts and managing field technicians are simplified across all channels.
Logistics are another good use case for a mass communication system. Managing fleets, deliveries, and drivers often requires complex, slow manual processes. A unified notification platform can be integrated with existing internal systems to efficiently synchronize the many moving parts and expedite service.
A mass communication system is the ideal tool for any instance where two-way internal communications are beneficial or required. By providing a mechanism for the dissemination of information and the feedback of employees from multiple communication channels, organizations can ensure no employee is missed. Everyone is on the same page with peace of mind knowing they will receive the information they need when they need it on the channels they use most.
Is It Right for Me?
IT investments require thorough vetting. An emergency notification system is no different. You must consider more than just emergency notification system cost and reviews. Before you invest dollars into any solution, conduct these four assessments:
Every organization is different. Your needs and requirements are unique. Ask these questions to determine what type of solution you may need:
• How many locations does my organization have?
• How dispersed is our workforce?
• What communication channels are most used?
• How well are current internal communications delivered to and received by every employee?
• What internal systems, if any, need to be integrated?
• What processes could a solution automate?
• Would our organization benefit from a cloud-based solution?
How your people work and communicate will be a factor in determining which solution is right for your organization. Ask these questions to gauge how well and what type of system will be best received:
• How many employees do we have?
• Where do our employees work?
• What communication channels and devices are most used and by whom?
• How successful have previous alerts, warnings, and internal communications been received?
• What kind of training would be required to ensure every employee is comfortable with the system?
Current capabilities assessment
Before you know what you need, you should understand what you already have. Consider the following questions to determine what can stay and what needs improvement:
• What mass communication system are we using now?
• How long does it take to activate the system?
• How many channels do our messages utilize?
• How quickly can messages be developed and sent?
• How well do we measure the effectiveness of our current system?
• Can we easily and quickly segment our employee population?
• Does our system allow for one-way or two-way communications?
Most likely threat assessment
Where your employees and facilities are located will have a direct influence on the kinds of emergencies that are most likely. Determine the following to understand what kind of messages will be most common and how they can be best delivered:
• Where are our employees located?
• What environmental hazards and threats does each location face?
• What internal threats might be most prevalent?
• What is our business continuity plan and how will communication play a role?
• How and when do we practice our emergency plan?
• What kind of security and IT support do we have in place?
How AlertMedia Can Help
There are several excellent emergency notification system vendors in the industry. The best emergency notification system will fulfill all of your unique requirements, provide the ongoing support you may need, and help you achieve maximum ROI.
Alert Media has been helping organizations streamline their mass communication needs across the enterprise so they can keep their employees safe, informed, and connected. Our reputation is built on helping companies speed communications to any and all communication channels so no employee is ever left behind.
We provide best-in-class architecture that enables organizations to provide real-time communications with employees no matter where they are located or which device they are using. Our secure, cloud-based platform means you can focus on what you do best without worrying about risk, maintenance, or escalating costs. Our engineers are constantly working to bring our customers the most comprehensive capabilities without adding complexity.
If you are ready to see why AlertMedia is the best communication platform for your organization, you can try it today without risk.