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If Timely Crisis Communication Matters, Invest in an Emergency/Mass Notification System

Call trees are inefficient and unreliable, especially for larger organizations. If timely crisis communication is critical to your organization, consider an emergency/mass notification system (EMNS). At the same time, you don’t necessarily need the Cadillac of the EMNS market to meet your requirements.

To help you evaluate your organization’s requirements and decide whether to invest in an EMNS, this note describes the following:

  • The purpose and benefits of an EMNS
  • Features summary for market-leading solutions
  • Features summary for non-market-leading solutions
  • Product directory
  • Recommendations for evaluating EMNS solutions

Why Use an EMNS?

An EMNS enables organizations to automate notifications through a variety of modes (phone call, text, multiple email addresses, etc.) to ensure messages are received in a timely manner. For catastrophic events (e.g. tornado, fire, flood), timely communication is crucial for health and safety reasons as well as to expedite invoking disaster recovery and business continuity plans.

When it’s not a catastrophic or life-or-death scenario but timely communication is still important, an EMNS is again an effective means of reaching staff quickly. For example, if your headquarters has to be evacuated due to a gas leak during the morning commute, a call can be sent immediately to all staff cell phones to tell them not to come in (or to report to an alternate site), before they start their commute into work.

Beyond the gas leak scenario, also consider road closures, public transit disruptions, or closing the office due to weather; in these examples, being able to reach staff before they start their commute would be a significant time saver for them and reduce frustration – both outcomes have a direct impact on productivity and goodwill. Staff can get back to work quickly, whether that means working from home or from a designated alternate site.

By contrast, call trees are very manual by design and therefore less efficient. It takes time for those at the top of the call tree to dial individuals, pass along a message, and then have this repeated by each layer until all staff are reached. If someone can’t be reached or the caller has forgotten where to access cell numbers, that compounds the time to reach all staff.

EMNS Features Summary for Market-Leading Solutions

Below are three examples of market-leading solutions:

  • AtHoc

    See the page at SoftwareReviews.com.

  • Everbridge Inc.

    See the page at SoftwareReviews.com.

  • OnSolve

    Note: The OnSolve suite includes MIR3 and SendWordNow, two market leaders that were acquired over the last few years.

Below are features commonly available in market-leading EMNS solutions, although specific options will vary. Always confirm your specific feature requirements with the vendors in your shortlist.

  • Support multiple communication methods (e.g. phone call, SMS, pagers, email)
  • Specify preferred contact method (e.g. cell phone vs. work phone)
  • Customize messaging to different groups (e.g. IT staff vs. business users). Note that maintaining groups can be a challenge, so consider how a specific tool helps you streamline group administration.
  • SaaS solution, accessed via a web portal
  • Integration with existing systems (e.g. HR systems) to import and update employee profiles (e.g. contact information, work location)
  • Portals to enable end users to update their contact information
  • GIS capability to target alerts to specific regions
  • Desktop alerts
  • Weather alert (option to receive notifications from subscribed weather alert providers)
  • Message receipt confirmation and message status tracking/reporting
  • Conference call support (set up instant conference calls via EMNS solution)
  • Security features (e.g. message encryption). When you evaluate security, also consider where your contact data is stored and how it is secured. Most solutions are SaaS, but some will offer an on-premises option or even a hybrid option (the product sits behind your firewall but you leverage the vendor’s telephony infrastructure).

Below are features where you might see more variability even among market-leading vendors:

  • Employee location tracking (e.g. through integration with building access and travel systems)
  • Device-specific messaging (e.g. sending shorter messages to devices with character limitations such as pagers)
  • Multilingual text-to-speech
  • Breadth and ease of integration. Beyond the usual integrations with systems to collect contact information, some vendors include integrations with ITSM tools to augment IT outage notification capabilities.

EMNS Features Summary for Non-Market-Leading Solutions

If you only need the core function of an EMNS – automate notifying staff – there is a wide range of options at the lower and middle range of the market. Core features to look for include:

  • Support multiple communication methods (e.g. phone call, SMS, pagers, email). The range of options might be more limited at the lower end of the market, so focus on the options relevant to you.
  • Customized messaging to different groups (e.g. IT staff vs. business users)
  • SaaS solution, accessed via a web portal

EMNS Product Directory

The Disaster Recovery Journal (DRJ) provides a list of EMNS products. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it provides organizations with a starting point.

Several business continuity management (BCM) tools also include EMNS as a feature. For more information about BCM tools, please see Business Continuity Management: What You Will and WON’T Get From a BCM Tool.

Recommendations for Evaluating EMNS Solutions

Take the time to identify your organization’s requirements. Don’t purchase the Cadillac of EMNS solutions if all you need is a Chevy Cruze.

As described above, there are a wide range of possible features. At the top end of the market, many solutions offer the same feature set, and the difference often comes down to usability (including personal preferences) and cost. A very basic EMNS solution might be enough for your needs.

To identify your specific product requirements, first define your notification process and communication needs. This will help you define your use cases and ultimately the tool requirements to support your notification process.

  1. Define escalation procedures from detection to mass notification. For example:
    • Define a crisis management team and the escalation path from general staff (e.g. the first employee to arrive in the morning might be the one who identifies a potential crisis) to your overall CMT. Escalation guidelines are especially important after hours. Consider who you would wake up if a potential crisis was identified in the middle of the night.
    • If someone traveling abroad is the first one to become aware of a threat in their region, who do they notify to assess the situation and/or communicate appropriate notifications to appropriate staff?
    • What content needs to be included in the notification message? A common strategy is to use the notification message (which could be a short text message) to direct staff to another information source (e.g. an intranet page, a crisis management conference bridge) for more details and status updates.
  2. Determine who has the authority to send out mass notification. A typical procedure would be:
    • At first detection, management is notified.
    • Management contacts a member of the crisis management team (CMT).
    • CMT initiates the assessment and notification. For example, call the other members of the CMT and review the potential crisis. If warranted, send out an appropriate mass notification (e.g. telling staff to report to an alternate location or work from home).
      Note: For obvious disasters, the above process happens very quickly, as there is very little assessment required (e.g. if a tornado warning is received). It’s important for international organizations to have regional crisis management teams who can send out notifications and execute appropriate incident response procedures without waiting for direction from HQ.
  3. Define communication methods you would want to use in a crisis:
    • A standard tactic is to rely on cell phones for communication. However, some staff might be in areas with poor cell reception, so other means of communication are required. And of course, if it’s a regional disaster, cell towers might be down or overloaded.
      Note: Vendors can’t guarantee 100% that staff will receive notifications; they can only guarantee that a notification will be sent out. Receiving the communications will depend on other factors (e.g. the status of cell towers and network capacity). This is another reason to have multiple communication methods and to be prepared to make direct calls to the CMT if necessary so you can confirm they have received the message.
    • To provide additional instructions to staff, consider an externally hosted intranet, a wiki site, or a SaaS solution.
    • Be careful with any use of social media as a mass notification vehicle as it’s much easier for those communications to become public inadvertently before you are ready to send out formal external crisis communications, even if you set up private groups.

Bottom Line

Remember that an EMNS supports your notification process; it does not replace it. Start by defining your process and use cases to determine your requirements. Then use those requirements to determine whether you need a top-end solution or an option that is more middle of the road.


Want to Know More?

Emergency Mass Notification Tools (SoftwareReviews)

Implement Crisis Management Best Practices

Develop a Business Continuity Plan