The Definitive Guide to Emergency Notification Systems
Emergency communication is unlike any other form of business communication. During an emergency, the speed and accuracy of critical information getting to those in harm’s way can have a life-altering impact on public safety. Whether alerting employees about an emerging threat—such as a hurricane, active shooter scenario, or natural disaster—or rapidly connecting stakeholders to discuss some other critical event with the potential to disrupt operations, it’s vital that organizations have a reliable, secure, and efficient way to reach employees wherever they are, share information about what’s happening, and ensure those in need can request assistance.
For that reason, organizations have increasingly turned to purpose-built emergency notification systems designed to facilitate this type of communication during a wide range of critical events. In this guide, we’ll cover what an emergency notification system is, how they are used, and key capabilities organizations should look for when evaluating potential providers.
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 inform and alert people in harm’s way quickly. Processes to do so vary, but thanks to advancements in technology and cultural shifts, emergency notification systems have rapidly become a mainstay at organizations large and small used to protect people and to ensure business continuity during all kinds of urgent situations.
Whether you work for a Fortune 1000 business, a branch or agency of the government, a small business, nonprofit, school, or some other organization, sending warnings and/or instructions to those impacted by an emergency requires a strategic approach to communication. After all, information is only useful if it reaches the right people at the right time.
An emergency notification system is designed to help you reach a targeted audience—of any size—across all available communication channels as quickly as possible (often in one click using pre-built templates). These channels are continually expanding to include modern modes of communication and to decrease reliance on a single channel, such as an email or phone call, which employees may not have access to during a crisis.
To fully understand where emergency notifications are heading in the future, we must first look at how they’ve adapted, evolved, and changed over time.
The Evolution of Emergency Notification Systems
Emergency notifications are not new, although the technology that enables them has matured quite a bit. Before more sophisticated techniques emerged, emergency alerts were most commonly communicated verbally, person to person. Town criers delivered important news from central locations in a city square. Neighboring communities employed smoke signals, torch signaling, and heliographs (flashing mirrors) to communicate quickly across vast distances. During the American Revolution, Paul Revere famously rode under cover of night to alert the colonial militia about the approaching British forces before the battles of Lexington and Concord. While these techniques may seem archaic given modern conveniences like smartphones, it was all these communities had. Word of mouth picked up where the initial alerts left off.
Whether using primitive or modern techniques, emergency notification systems historically served to provide warnings about emerging threats to give people enough time to protect themselves, their loved ones, their assets, and their property.
With the invention of the radio, more people could be reached without so much effort. Then, 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 would have heard the same alert of the attack. But still, word of mouth was the primary carrier of the alert. Regardless, 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 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, an upgraded alert system was put into place in 1963. According to the United States Defense Civil Preparedness Agency, the United States established the Emergency Broadcast System to “provide the President…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 could reach more people than any previous solution.
By 1997, the Emergency Broadcast System was replaced with the current Emergency Alert System (EAS). This system leverages television and radio as well as new communication channels, including cable and satellite television, mobile phones, and more. In addition, the government added 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.
Communicating During Critical Situations
Today’s emergency notification systems aren’t just for governments — every organization needs the ability to initiate a fast, effective emergency response and communicate quickly during critical events. 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. Spurred on by the pandemic and shifting cultural ideals, remote work is now more popular than ever. According to research conducted by Owl Labs, approximately 16 percent of companies are now 100 percent remote, and more than 60 percent of employees ages 22-65 say they now work remotely at least occasionally.
Businesses and other organizations recognized the need to reach more people. They understood that 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.
A modern emergency alert system helps you communicate with any person, anywhere in the world—even during power outages or when critical infrastructure fails—by leveraging a multi-channel approach spanning landline and cell phones, SMS text messaging, social media, mobile app notifications, and more.
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 all available communication channels. Only a modern system can give organizations and employees peace of mind that they 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 public safety impact 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. Research shows Gen Z employees are even more resistant to email.
As communication preferences continue to shift, emergency mass notification systems must be flexible enough to keep up. Of course, not all emergency notification software is created equal, but there are several features to look for when considering which one is best for your environment.
Emergency Alerts: Key Features to Consider
How do you find emergency notification system software that will be right for your organization?
There are at least 15 key features to keep in mind when evaluating potential providers to ensure the system does what it was intended to do: reach the right people with the right information at the right time.
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 works as fast as you do. The more steps and clicks required, the longer your employees must wait to receive potentially life-saving warnings and instructions. When alerting large audiences—such as a global workforce—you 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 real-time notifications as soon as new information is available.
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.
Multichannel notification delivery
Like it or not, each one of your employees likely has their own preferred communication channels. Communication preferences can vary significantly from department to department and generation to generation, depending on the makeup of your organization. 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. Therefore, it is critical to find software that will enable you to select multiple communication channels to include in your alert.
As a best practice, you should send emergency alerts over multiple channels to ensure delivery to your people. When in doubt, use SMS messaging, mobile app notifications, voice calls, email, and social media to ensure employees see critical information quickly.
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 of your employees will see messages sent to their mobile devices first. You will have the best sense of which channels are most effective for your organization, but no matter how you choose to communicate, you should ensure you can reach your people no matter where they are or what device they are using.
Message customization per channel
As much as communication channels differ, so do the types of messages best suited for those channels based on your emergency management goals for each situation. An email, for example, has the flexibility to contain lengthy instructions, attachments, links, and images, which may be ideal for communicating about workplace hazards or safety regulations. On the other hand, a mobile push notification should contain only a brief statement with a few words—these are especially valuable when time is of the essence, such as with a fire evacuation.
It’s important to have the capability to tailor your messaging to fit the channel(s) you are sending them through. Look for templates to help guide you, pre-built messages for the fastest creation, and customization abilities when the situation requires a more personal approach. In addition, your software should allow you to easily decipher which message goes with which channel so you’re not wasting any time during an actual emergency.
Dynamic audience groups
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. For example, your messages and alerts may not need to be sent to every employee—especially if the critical event is regional or only impacting a subset of your workforce. To ensure only the right people receive the right messaging, you want the ability to group your audience based on attributes such as:
- Location (e.g., California-based employees, Chicago office, etc.),
- Role (e.g., Leadership, Admins, etc.), or
- Department (e.g., IT, Facilities, Marketing, etc.).
Audience grouping ensures the right audience receives the message and eliminates unnecessary messages being sent 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 and only target 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 develop 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 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 you have a perfectly relevant and concise message ready to send in a matter of seconds.
Mobile applications for Android and iOS
When seconds count, the less complex your emergency notification software, the faster and more accurately you can send the critical message or warning. In addition, the software should be so intuitive that little training is required. The fewer steps, tutorials, and practice required, the more your team will utilize the system.
As with the speed promises, be sure you see the emergency notification services in action so you can get a visual of 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 be an administrative burden, so watch a demo and trial the product to be certain your definitions are aligned.
Threats intelligence and mapping
When your employees are working outside of the office, it can be challenging to track their location when it comes to an emergency situation. They may be near a developing event or in immediate danger, but how can you know?
Visually establish your audience with events and locations to improve your ability to send emergency notifications swiftly and with great accuracy.
Today’s emergency notification solutions can provide a map view of your employees’ real-time locations to help you monitor their whereabouts in relation to any developing event or incident. 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. In addition, you should look for vendors that offer fully integrated threat intelligence to help your security team quickly identify and visualize events based on location, category, and severity. By tying together the locations of your employees, offices, and assets with real-time intelligence about emerging threats, your organization can determine if, when, and where to deploy resources to keep people safe.
In an emergency—such as an evacuation—it’s common that you will need to reach a group of people in a specific location quickly. With geofencing, an administrator can draw a virtual fence around a particular area of concern on a map and send messages to all employees within that fenced area.
This is particularly helpful during natural disasters, bomb threats, hazardous material spills, riots or protests, or even less nefarious situations, such as major traffic delays. This kind of segmenting gives employees peace of mind that their employer has their back no matter where they go.
In some circumstances, one-way messaging is all that is needed. This is how the federal EAS works—blast the message out en masse, and your job is done. However, in many situations, it’s beneficial to engage employees and allow them to respond either with questions, comments, photos, or videos. For example, 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 for 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.
For most organizations, integrating a mass emergency notification system with other critical business systems, such as an HRIS or employee database, is required to ensure long-term success. These integrations help automate processes, such as populating employee contact fields and ensuring contact information is accurate—a vital aspect of any emergency communication strategy. In addition, these integrations can save critical time in reaching every employee via their preferred communication channels as well as aiding 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. Therefore, 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 is 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 event, your provider should offer relevant analytics concerning message performance. Vendors may vary in the analytics they provide. Still, basic reporting should include message delivery statistics, read receipts, survey results, delivery performance by channel, and replies—all of which will help you ensure a coordinated audience.
Enterprise security should always be top of mind for your organization. For example, 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 become 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 about 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.
Cloud or on-premise
There are two different deployment methods for Emergency Notification Systems. The first and oldest is known as “on-premise,” which means that the hardware and software that runs the system lives in a physical location managed by your own organization. The other method is known as “cloud,” which simply means that the hardware is housed in an off-site location, managed by professionals in a secure data center.
Cloud solutions are generally easier to manage, more cost-effective, and can be accessed anywhere there is an internet connection. In addition, unlike on-premise solutions, cloud solutions do not require your company to actively manage/upgrade servers, saving you money in infrastructure costs.
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 its communication capabilities with any audience quickly.
Depending on where your organization, 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% – cybersecurity 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. The modern consumer has become impatient and 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. A threat intelligence and monitoring solution can help you quickly identify threats as well as any employees in harm’s way. Once you’ve identified a threat, your emergency alert system can help you send instructions about how to stay safe to those impacted or steps to get your business back up and running to critical support staff.
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 considering emergency notification systems, yet they increasingly pose a significant threat to any organization. Data—particularly customer data—is in high demand. Hackers continually seek ways to exploit security weaknesses to access this information. In fact, experts estimate cyber attacks already cost businesses as much as $400 billion per year, and that number is expected to climb to more than $10 trillion annually by 2025.
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 systems 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 to consumers, partners, suppliers, and other stakeholders, and to critical business systems.
Emergency Notification Systems for More Than Emergencies
Modern mass communication systems offer value beyond just emergencies. Any time an organization needs to reach a group or segment of its workforce rapidly and reliably, there are significant benefits when using a system designed to ensure messages reach their intended audience instead of relying on just email or phone.
Operations teams, for example, can benefit greatly from a unified communication system. Processes such as scheduling shifts and managing field technicians are simplified across all channels.
Coordinating multi-faceted logistics is 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 synchronize the many moving parts and expedite service efficiently.
A mass communication system is ideal for any instance where two-way internal communications are beneficial or required. By providing a mechanism to disseminate messages en masse and collect feedback from employees across multiple communication channels, organizations can ensure no critical information or context is missed. As a result, employees and leaders alike can rest easy knowing everyone is on the same page and that 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, and an emergency notification system is no different. When assessing potential providers, you should consider more than just emergency notification system cost and reviews (though both are important factors).
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 communication channels do we currently use for alerting?
- 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
The locations of your employees and facilities will directly influence the kinds of emergencies that are most likely to impact your business. As part of your business impact analysis, 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
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.
AlertMedia helps organizations streamline their mass communication needs across the enterprise so they can keep their employees safe, informed, and connected during any critical event. Our reputation is built on helping companies communicate more effectively and efficiently, which is why thousands of companies have entrusted us with their most critical communications.
We provide a 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.