9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Six Simple Steps to Ensure the Effectiveness of Emergency Notification Technology

Taken from Emergency Number Professional Magazine/September 2009
Written by Hal St. Clair, Director of Advanced Technologies for Dialogic Communications Corp.

By exercising a few simple emergency notification guidelines, public safety operations can dramatically improve any crisis communications strategy.

For today's public safety operations, emergency notification technology is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity. As more sheriff's offices, fire departments and emergency management agencies implement these communications systems, so too are they seeking guidance to ensure their effectiveness. This article will provide six crucial steps for improving the integrity and reliability of any emergency notification system, whether on-premise, hosted or hybrid.

#1. Educate People on Your Use of the Technology
You and your family sit down to dinner. The phone rings. You pick up, only to hear an automated, "hello." Assuming it's another telemarketing call, you hang up. It's a common scenario. Only this time, the call is from your PSAP's emergency notification system, attempting to let you know of a hazardous materials spill out on Route 9.
To know emergency personnel and local residents will react appropriately to these calls, educate them on the system's use beforehand. Activate "sample" notification scenarios, letting people hear how calls sound and ways to interact with them. Broadcast information about your use of the technology on local public access TV channels and radio. Launch an all-out public awareness campaign by mailing flyers community-wide and encouraging locals with unlisted numbers or cell phones to register for notifications during community events or online.
As simple as it sounds, also train people to say "hello" when they receive a call from numbers inside your area code or directly from your operation. Most emergency notification systems are programmed to recognize a standard ring-back tone and "listen" for an actual voice before delivering the message. When these systems encounter silence, they assume no one is on the line and terminate the call, often resulting in non-delivery.

#2. Conduct Partial and Full System Tests on a Regular Basis
An emergency notification system is only as good as the data that resides within it. Therefore, it is imperative for public safety operations to routinely carry out both partial and full system tests. As a general rule, select a small group of people, preferably your own personnel, to automatically notify once each month via all designated methods (e.g., home phone, Blackberry, e-mail, etc.) in order to determine any data errors or potential communications issues. If possible, also conduct regularly scheduled tests to small geographical areas throughout your community. Finally, conduct a full system test once per quarter, or at a minimum, twice each year. Together, these measures will help your operation correct any potential hardware, software or telephony issues before they arise.

#3. Avoid the Blacklist
During the course of a week, you probably receive hundreds of unwanted e-mails regarding special events, company promotions or worse. Fortunately, the companies and/or individuals behind these campaigns often find themselves blacklisted, slowing, suspending or rejecting their access to certain e-mail servers. However, for public safety operations that send a large number of notifications via e-mail, this poses a potential problem.
Typically, the first sign of trouble comes with "bounce-back" e-mails. Often these include technical reasons for the return, but others will not. It all depends on your IT department's setup and software.
If you suspect you have been blacklisted, there are a number of resources online from which you can run automated tests against your IP address. These include www.spamhaus.org, www.spews.org and www.dsbl.org. You might also consider directly contacting the domain blocking your e-mails in order to resolve the problem.
To avoid being blacklisted in the future, confirm the validity of the e-mail address in the "form" field of your e-mails. Also, continually remove invalid e-mail addresses from your contact data, as too many can cause Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to flag your e-mail account as a source of SPAM.

#4. Know Your Communications Capacity
It's Mother's Day. You pick up the phone and dial your mom's number, only to hear "We're sorry. All circuits are busy. Please try your call again later." The same holds true during large-scale disasters, where your area's phone grid may become overloaded or even completely shut down. Do you know how many simultaneous phone conversations your particular community, office or county is able to support? Do you fully understand the availability (or lack) of cellular service in your area? Did you know there are limitations to the number of SMS/text messages providers can support at any given time? Clearly, there are a number of factors influencing or limiting your ability - or capacity - to communicate during certain situations.
For public safety operations using an on-premise emergency notification system, it is imperative to strategize on the front end in order to avoid any issues on the back end. This includes allocating a certain number of inbound and outbound phone lines or toggling between the two, shortening a call's duration (i.e., greeting, message, prompts and farewell) and determining the most effective sequence for contacting certain groups of individuals (e.g., page first, then e-mail, call home, etc.).
For those operations using offsite (hosted) emergency notification services, the amount of phone lines available is determined by the vendor. While this number is generally far greater than those associated with on-premise systems, capacity is still limited by your area's communications infrastructure. For example, a small town may only have 200 phone lines in its entire grid. During peak hours, 150 of them could be in use at any given time, leaving only 50 available for emergency notification.
To counter this potential problem, consider using alternative means for communication, including cell, e-mail and SMS/text messaging. But remember, these methods have limitations too. Also take into consideration the restrictions of your own PBX, voicemail system and paging service. Multiple attempts will more likely ensure the delivery of your message.
Finding a balance may be tricky, but as evidenced by the technology's widespread use, it is certainly not impossible.

#5. Have a Backup Plan in Place
Depending on the situation, your telecommunications infrastructure may be severely impacted or rendered inoperable. As with all public safety systems, redundancy measures should be in place for your operation's emergency notification system. This will enure communications with first responders, area residents, local authorities, community volunteers and others do not fail, even in worst-case scenarios.
Redundancy is most often delivered through remote hosting center. These facilities provide public safety operations secure access to hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of phone lines 24/7/365. Use of this infrastructure, whether for secondary or primary purposes, may be subject to a subscription fee, per-call charges or both.
Another option for redundancy involves the shared use of emergency notification systems between local or regional operations. Though less costly, this method does require a great deal of communication, collaberation and coordination on behalf of the participating parties. It may also not be feasible in the event of a large-scale disaster affecting two or more groups.

#6. Open the Lines of Communication
In an emergency, you must not only be able to push information out and into the hands of personnel and the community-at-large, but also manage the influx of calls post-notification. The use of an inbound "bulletin board," if available with your system, will easily address this communications need.
As part of your notification message, briefly instruct recipients to call a designated phone number for additional incident-related details. Record and update this information as often as necessary. Activate subsequent notifications as the situation escalates or improves to keep everyone in the loop and further reduce the number of incoming calls.

The Bottom Line
The benefits of adopting the six steps identified here are two-fold. First, public safety operations using emergency notification technology will improve the efficiency and reliability of their system. Second, they will reap the numerous benefits of knowing they have taken all the right steps to ensure their communities are safe and informed.

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