Selecting an Emergency Communications Solution

As organizations continue to mature in the development of Business Continuity plans (people/work group/departments) versus Disaster Recovery plans (technology), the need for mass notification tools has grown. In 2007, industry understanding of the importance of mass notification tools as part of any crisis response plan has continued to be validated by the market’s acceptance of this technology.

Large-scale disasters like Hurricane Katrina have also accelerated the adoption of mass notification technology by organizations large and small. The tragedy at Virginia Tech has also elevated the visibility of the need for large scale and rapid notification capability. And the institutionalization of the business continuity function has lead to an increased awareness at the executive level of the importance of proper emergency planning and having the necessary tools to communicate during times of crisis.

Furthermore, the number of choices, vendors, and types of solutions is exploding. In our research to assist clients in making a selection, we have identified over 50 different vendors and solutions. Large numbers of alternatives are normally an advantage to the buyer. But a number this large can be confusing.

The objective of this article is to review the different considerations a business should examine as part of selecting a mass notification solution. While the adage that one-size does not fit all is true, there are several factors that should be evaluated when making a vendor selection.

The objective of most mass notification systems is universally consistent: to notify a large number of individuals in the shortest amount of time possible. From this point of agreement, the solutions begin to diverge in how they attempt to accomplish this feat. While there are single-channel communication solution vendors in the mass notification market, this article will concentrate on multi-channel notification systems that are most commonly and broadly used in the industry today.

Additionally, the term “mass notification” may be limiting in many respects in that it implies a one-way blast and software system purely focused on notification. It is important to note that many solutions are designed as comprehensive event and/or emergency management solutions that include notification capabilities as well as reporting and tracking data customized for the viewer. The goal is to give administrators a view of all situational requirements, audiences by group, messages sent, responses received, and awareness of the problem areas that need to be addressed. As a result, the system provides much more than mass notification and becomes a powerful tool for emergency management and administrators. Furthermore, this broader use will help justify the purchase and increase the likelihood of management buy-in and funding.

Key criteria in evaluating mass notification systems
1.  Ease of use
2.  Performance and reliability
3.  Scalability
4.  Total cost of ownership
5.  Features and functionality
6.  Customers

Examining the fundamentals
The first step in evaluating mass notification solutions is to understand the basics of how they work. Most mass notification systems allow the user to 1) select a group of individuals or organizations to send a message to, 2) create the message, and 3) launch a notification broadcast across the various channels of communications to these individuals. How the many vendors approach this process may differ vastly, but the objectives are the same.

The front-end application for most mass notification systems provides a wealth of different features enabling an organization to communicate with its employees, its customers, or any of its other constituents. Some of these notification types are: “emergency-only” notifications versus “routine-notifications”; enhanced polling-type notifications that allow users to respond to the notification by selecting answers to multiple-choice questions; quota-based notifications that terminate a broadcast once a specified number of positive responses has been received; express calling notifications that allow users to add and send messages to large groups of message recipients on the fly, and more.

While we could spend a lot of time and detail reviewing each specific feature and function that a notification vendor may offer, we would suggest focusing on the features and functions that are most important to your organization to help guide you in your decision. As with any software solution, independent of the specific features and functionality each notification vendor provides, the most important thing to look for when evaluating the application component of a mass notification system is ease-of-use. Because the most important thing to the person that is going to send out notifications for your organization is going to be how quickly and easily this can be done. Mass notification applications that require extensive classroom training or come with thick training manuals should raise a red flag.

During the initial demonstration portion of the notification vendor selection process, ask each vendor to provide you with control of the application and test launching a notification on the fly with each vendor’s tool. When sending this notification, it will be very helpful in your evaluation if you are able to send a notification that goes outside of the parameters that the vendor set up for your scheduled demonstration. This will help ensure that you understand how flexible the application will be if you need to use it during a real crisis.

If the vendor will not allow you to send your own broadcast during the initial demo, then you should ask him to provide you with a test account so that you may do your own evaluation without the constraints imposed on you by a demo. If the vendor will not allow this for business or “security” reasons, then you should factor that into your vendor evaluation.

Notification quality
The second half of the notification vendor review should focus in on the quality of notifications that a vendor is able to provide. What we mean by a vendor’s notification quality is “how” they deliver messages to notification recipients. Factors for consideration include number and types of channels of communication, infrastructure delivery model, back-end database infrastructure, and more.

One of the major differences in looking at a mass notification system vs. a typical desktop software application such as Microsoft Word or Excel is that the back-end infrastructure is equally, if not more so, important than the front end application. If Microsoft Word crashes while you are doing something routine like writing this article, the system will automatically try to save the document at the point of failure. Then you will have to reboot your PC and try to recover whatever work you had done up to that point in time. If your mass notification solution crashes while you are in the process of launching a broadcast, or if the vendor’s infrastructure fails to deliver the message, lives can be lost. While this analogy takes the situation to an extreme conclusion, we cannot over-emphasize the importance of ensuring that the notification vendor you select has the right infrastructure to deliver when you need them to.