When it comes to business communication, emergency communications are in a special category. In the event of an emergency, accuracy and speed are vital for getting people out of harm’s way and can have a life-altering impact on public safety. Whether it’s alerting employees about an emerging threat, such as a tornado, active shooter scenario, or some other threat, it’s vital that organizations have a reliable, secure, and efficient way to reach employees in a matter of seconds.
For those scenarios and others, companies have turned to purpose-built emergency notification systems. 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?
An emergency notification system is a software platform that enables an organization to send messages to employees, contractors, authorities, and other stakeholders in the event of an emergency. These messages can be sent via email, text message, voice call, PA system or push notification, and can include instructions on what to do and where to go during an incident.
In addition to being used for alerts, emergency notification systems can also be used for general communications during a crisis. For instance, they can be used to provide updates on the status of an incident, weather threat, or share information about resources that are available.
During an emergency or a threatening event of spreading danger, the most critical step an organization can take is to immediately inform and alert people that may be in danger emergency notification systems have rapidly become a key pillar at organizations small and large because of their ability to reach employees via multiple technologies, protecting people and businesses from a variety of impending hazards and threats.
It doesn’t matter if you work for a global brand, small business, school, governmental agency or some other organization, sending warnings and/or instructions to those impacted by an emergency requires a strategic approach to communication. Remember, information is only useful if it reaches the right people at the right time.
Most emergency notification systems have a one-click (physical or virtual) panic button that can send pre-formatted messages to any deskphone, mobile device, computer, digital display and autodialer as well as PA systems and strobes. They can also identify the user and their location. They can also utilize sensors for fire, smoke, vape, temperature variation and door open/lock notification.
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.
How Emergency Notification Systems Have Evolved
While emergency notifications are not new, how they are transmitted have changed over the millenium. In medieval times, emergency alerts were most commonly communicated verbally, by “town criers in a city square. Other methodologies included smoke signals, torch signaling, flags, carrier pigeons and flashing mirrors. This would allow them to communicate quickly across large distances. While these techniques are archaic given modern conveniences like smartphones, it was all these communities had. Once the signals were made, word of mouth would spread the alert locally.
Whether using outdated 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.
The invention of the radio fundamentally changed the game. It offered the ability to reach a lot of people almost immediately with little effort. An early example is the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, which was broadcast live on the radio. Television hadn’t been invented yet and radio was the primary notification system. Almost every household had a radio in their living room or kitchen. Several years later, the attack on Pearl Harbor led to the creation of the first radio and network bulletin. If you were in range of the radio then, you would have heard about the surprise attack. While radio put the news out, people still relied on word of mouth communications to spread the alert locally.
Over the next decade, radio continued to be a primary vehicle to deliver warnings and news to the public.
An upgraded alert system was introduced in 1963, the United States established the Emergency Broadcast System to “provide the President a method to communicate with the American public in the event of war, threat of war, or national crisis.”
Even though 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.
The earliest use of video for emergency communications was prompted by the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. Up until that point, all telephone and fax communications at embassies around the world were routed through the local telephone company. After communications with the embassy were cut, the US vowed to never again be at the mercy of a foreign entity and developed satellite videoconferencing which bypassed local telcos. 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.
While governments were the first users of emergency notification systems, the user base expanded to the private sector as both large and small organizations recognized the benefits of being able to notify authorities, management and employees simultaneously of a critical event.
With the advent of the pandemic, many organizations and businesses have realized the importance of internal communication – having the ability to reach their employees with emergency and priority messages wherever they are, in real time.
Modern emergency alert systems help you communicate with any person, anywhere in the world, even during power outages or when critical infrastructure fails. These systems leverage multiple channels to accomplish that using landlines, cell phones, SMS text messaging, social media, desktop alerts, mobile app notifications, and more.
No matter what device people use, no matter where in the world they are, enterprise-level emergency notification systems will continue to evolve. State-of-the-art systems are necessary
to ensure that businesses and employees have peace of mind that they will be informed if an emergency scenario presents itself.
Even with the amazing technology advancements and shifts to mobile technology, many organizations still rely on older technology, believing that what worked in the past should still have the same public safety impact today. Even with modern technology, 8 out of 10 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. Since all emergency notification software are not created equal, if you know what features to look for, you’re going to be able to find the right solution.
If you need help finding the right emergency notification system for your organization, be sure to reach out. Trident Communications has worked with some of the largest brands in the world and has more than a decade of experience. Just click here.
Emergency Alerts: Key Features to Consider
If you’re looking to find emergency notification system software that will fit your specific organizational needs, where do you begin?
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.
(1) Speed is a priority
When it comes to emergency alerts, nothing may be more important than the speed of the alert itself. In some cases, every second counts and it can mean the difference between life and death. This is exactly why you need a system that works as fast as you do.
The more steps and clicks that are involved, the longer your employees are going to have to 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. Your system needs the capability of parallel delivery across all channels simultaneously, this is the only way to ensure your whole audience receives real-time notifications as soon as new information is made available.
(2) Multichannel notification delivery
Another priority feature you want to make sure you have is multi-channel notification delivery. Whether you like it or you don’t, each one of your employees has their own preferred communication channels. While some may like email, others may want a text or SMS.
Communication preferences are going to vary from one department to next – as well as generation to generation, there’s going to be a lot of channels you have to navigate. If your notification system targets only one or two channels, you could potentially miss a significant number of employees who may be in harm’s way. Due to this, it is critical to find software that will enable you to select multiple communication channels to include in your alert.
As a general rule of thumb, 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, desktop alerts, 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 are still a solid foundation, but it’s highly likely most 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.
(3) Message customization per channel
While communication channels are going to differ, the specific types of messages 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. Visuals dramatically increase the impact and reaction time because you brain processes images 60,000 times faster than print.
On the flip side, a mobile push notification should contain only a brief statement with a few words, these are extremely valuable when you need to respond now, such as with a fire evacuation.
You also want the ability to tailor your messaging to fit the specific channel(s) you’re using to send communications. Emergency notification toolkits can be a valuable asset because they offer different communications channels which allow administrators to create priority channels, color code templates, target specific groups compile metrics in real time, so you know who has opened each message, and when.
For most organizations, integrating a mass emergency notification system with other critical business systems, (HRIS, employee database) is mandatory to ensure long-term success. These integrations help automate a wide variety of different processes, this includes filling out employee contact information, making sure that contact information is right. Both are going to be important to your emergency communication strategy. Also, these integrations can save you precious time in reaching every employee via their preferred communication channels.
The majority of integrations are going to be pre-built and enable you to sync systems by installing a small software client. This will make it simple to push contact details from Active Directory or a CSV file into the emergency notification system.
Some integrations might be more complex, requiring an API that enables you to read and write into the system. Due to this, it’s imperative that you work with a partner that offers an API and comes supported with pre-built integrations. This will allow you to grow into an emergency notification system. This is another thing Trident Communications can help with.
(5) Dynamic audience groups
If your company has a large spread out 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 small percentage of your workforce. To ensure only the right people receive the right messaging, you need the ability to group your audience based on specific attributes.
- Location based
- Role in organization
- Department in organization
Audience groups allow you to communicate the right message to the right audience at the right time. You also want to eliminate unnecessary messages being sent across the system. If employees are getting irrelevant messages all the time, the more they tend to ignore them, and the system becomes less powerful. This is why you want to use the system only when necessary and only target the people in harm’s way.
(6) Notification templates
As you can imagine, building an emergency message during an actual emergency can be stressful. More importantly, it also wastes valuable time people may need. This is why you want to create a message prior to emergencies. Modern alert systems will enable you to develop pre-built messages for the most likely scenarios and you can use these templates to guide you through creating a personal message of your own.
When you’re evaluating emergency notification system vendors, ask them if they have templates available you can review. 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.
(7) Enterprise security
Enterprise security should be mandatory for your organization. Think about it, an emergency notification system is going to store user data and messages that will be mainly intended only for your internal audience. Not only that, global organizations have to be mindful of international data privacy laws, as well as how personal data like a mobile number is stored and delivered on country lines. There’s a lot you have to be aware of.
In order to reduce or eliminate your risk, an emergency alert system should always provide appropriate safety protocols to protect your data. All of your information should be encrypted both in transit and at rest. The vendor you work with should also maintain industry-standard application security, measurement, and monitoring protocols to protect your business.
(8) Mobile applications for Android and iOS
One of the key reasons organizations are investing in modern alerting systems is that they are more likely to be built with mobile technology in mind. Older software providers often try to add mobile features as an afterthought; however, these are usually fairly basic and lack enterprise-grade features. Be sure you find software specifically designed 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. In addition, any communication solution you use for emergency event management should also allow your admins to create messages on the go, sending notifications to potentially thousands of people with just a few taps on the phone.
(9) Great user experience
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.
(10) Threats intelligence and mapping
One big challenge you have is tracking employees who are working outside of the office, it can be difficult to track their location when it comes to emergency situations. They may be near a developing event or in immediate danger, but how can you know?
The good news, emergency notification solutions we use can provide a map view (Geo Location) of your employees’ real-time locations to help you monitor their whereabouts in relation to any developing event or incident.
Whether it’s a tornado, hurricane, blizzard, chemical spill, or any emergency where physical location is a big 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 when, where, and how to send resources in the case something happens.
(11) Audience interaction
In some cases, all you’re going to need is to send a one-way message. This is how the federal EAS works, it blasts the message out to the masses. Still, in many situations, it’s beneficial to engage employees and allow them to respond back with questions, comments, concerns, photos, videos, etc.. For example, employees who are in the middle of an unfolding situation can provide invaluable feedback to help first responders, employees, and others involved in the emergency.
This is why you want to 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.
(12) Reporting and analytics
The only way you’re going to be able to gauge the effectiveness of any system is by having the right reporting and analytics tool. Emergency notification system software is no different. The software alone does you no good if you can’t collect data, analyze it, and make decisions with it. More less, you need to know if it’s working right, which is reaching the intended audience quickly and reliably with the right messaging.
To understand how your organization reacts around an event, your provider should offer relevant analytics concerning the performance of your communications. 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.
(13) Customer support
It doesn’t matter how great the tech is, if you don’t have underlying support, there’s always going to be a chance you never communicate at the level you need. 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.
In the event that your employees have to evaluate, it’s common that you will need to reach a group of people in a specific location very quickly. This is where geofencing can help, it allows you to draw a virtual fence around a specific area of concern on a map and send messages to all employees within that fenced area.
This is helpful in a wide range of different emergencies, such as chemical spills, natural disasters, bomb threats, riots, or protests, or even less nefarious scenarios, 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.
(15) Deployment methods: Cloud or On-Premise
There are two main 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
Disruptions: 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.
Fire: 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 (geo 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. Newer systems include vape detection (important for high schools) and temperature sensors to let you know of a potential fire before it starts. Other sensors can be utilized for chemical spills,
Cybersecurity: Cyber threats are a real concern, these are emergencies we usually don’t think about when considering emergency notification systems. Yet, there’s a growing threat they pose to any organization. Customer data and data in general is always 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 putting business operations at a stand still. Employees must know how to respond, both to consumers, partners, suppliers, stakeholders, and to critical business systems you have in place.
Weather: 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.
Emergency Notification Systems for More Than Emergencies
Modern mass communication systems do offer a lot of value beyond just emergencies. Any time an organization needs to reach a group or segment of its workforce rapidly and reliably, there’s a huge benefit for that when using a system designed to ensure messages reach their intended audience versus just relying on phone numbers and email.
Coordinating multi-faceted logistics is another good use case for a mass communication system. Managing fleets, supply chains, 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 not only beneficial, but 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?
These types of 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.
Before you invest your hard earned dollars into any solution, take the time to answer these assessments. With the answers below, you’ll have a much better idea of what emergency notification system to invest in.
As always, we’re here to help. If you have questions about anything we’ve discussed today and want to learn more, you can always reach our team here.
Assessing Your Organization
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 do we use the most?
- How well are current internal communications delivered?
- How well are current internal communications received?
- What internal systems will need to be integrated?
- What processes could a solution automate?
- Would our organization benefit from a cloud-based solution?
Assessing Your Culture
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:
- What’s the total amount of employees we have?
- Where do our employees work?
- What communication channels are used the most? By whom?
- What devices are used for internal communications?
- 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?
Assessing Your Current Capabilities
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?
Assessing Likely Threats
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?
Emergency Notification Systems offer organizations of every size the ability to notify employees anywhere, on any device of urgent events and are increasingly becoming a part of a basic communications plan.