Emergency notification system comparison and purchasing tips

We’ll show you an emergency notification system comparison and share some tips on purchasing the right program for your organization.

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What you will learn in this tip: We’ll show you an emergency notification system comparison and share some tips on purchasing the right program for your organization.

Seconds count when a disaster or other business disruption strikes an organization. Among the most important first steps following a disruption are to assess the situation; determine its severity and its potential impact on the organization; and then communicate with employees, management and other key stakeholders. In the past, communications during an emergency were conducted mostly by phone, e.g., land lines, PBX systems and similar devices. But the advent of cell phones added another layer to the communications process and increased the chances of reaching someone in an emergency. Today the need for rapid communications to a large number of people in an emergency is greater than ever. Emergency notification systems (ENS) are the most recent options to initiate rapid emergency communications.

Emergency notification solutions are used to coordinate corporate communications in real-time, activate field workforces and help healthcare institutions prepare for large-scale incidents. Most systems can also be easily integrated into existing applications without dramatically changing operational processes.

Today’s emergency notification system is a server with a huge database of contact data, e.g., names, addresses, a variety of phone numbers, email addresses and even social media contact data. The system has the ability to rapidly dial hundreds of calls, plus send thousands of emails and text messages. And those activities occur within minutes of activation of the system.

Thanks to the Internet and IP technology, it is now possible to generate the volumes of calls and messages that may be needed in an emergency. So long as the emergency notification system has access to the Internet, it can generate thousands of messages in minutes. The ENS can also receive and process incoming messages from recipients stating where they are and/or their status.

In the past, emergency notification system capabilities were limited to the number of voice-grade lines connected to the telephone network. If the system could receive incoming confirmation messages, those could add congestion to the system’s ability to send outbound calls. As such, earlier ENS products were somewhat time-constrained in terms of their emergency capabilities. With today’s Internet-based systems, the issue of congestion has been greatly reduced.

Emergency notification system comparison

Send Word Now, an emergency notification system vendor, was founded in 2001 by individuals who recognized the need for quick and effective crisis communications following the events of Sept. 11. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, cell phone traffic became congested and often unavailable. Send Word Now offers a Web-based emergency notification service for use by government agencies, municipalities and other organizations to provide two-way communications in real-time. Pricing ranges from a basic system for less than $2,000 to more complex systems with a variety of pricing plans.

Everbridge Inc. offers three products: an emergency alert option called Everbridge Aware; an incident notification system called Everbridge Matrix; plus a map-based system called Everbridge SmartGIS. The company offers server-based products and managed emergency notification services with fixed and monthly pricing plans. 

Enera Inc. offers the RapidReach system that generates outbound announcement messages via the Internet or public telephone network. A basic system is available for $1,000.

Emergency notification system planning guidelines

The following are steps to take when planning for an emergency notification system.

1.      Ensure that an emergency notification system is really needed. You can do this by conducting an analysis of your anticipated requirements. Determine the number of people and organizations that would need to be contacted. Then determine how many of these contacts can be combined into larger groups to speed up notification. Before investing in a premises-based system, consider a managed service arrangement, which would allow you to “rent” only the resources you need. Prepare a request for information (RFI) to ask ENS vendors what they would charge for several different configurations. Premises-based systems can also be expensive, with an initial investment and ongoing monthly maintenance costs. By contrast, managed ENS services can be a cost-effective option, minimizing investments in servers, data center space and utilities, while increasing the likelihood of system survival. 

2.      Determine if the number of employees, government agencies, regulators and other relevant organizations is sufficient to justify investing in an emergency notification system. While that’s not an easy analysis, it’s worth the time. Also consider asking ENS vendors if they have a cost-benefit or break-even model for justifying ENS technology. Given the level of sophistication in ENS technology today, you can probably use a managed service solution for just about any size requirement. If a premises-based product makes better sense, consider this option if your system requires at least 1,000 contacts.

3.      Before investing in ENS, see if existing technology, such as a VoIP system or even a traditional digital PBX system, may have features that can be adapted to outbound calling in an emergency. Keep in mind you need to think about how the system would be protected and whether or not it would be suitable for a large-scale emergency.

4.      If you are using BC/DR plan development software, check to see if the software vendor offers an emergency notification module. This may be sufficient for your needs and could save a lot of money.

5.      Be sure to investigate managed ENS providers as well as site-based system providers, because many ENS vendors offer both options. The managed service option reduces your investment in hardware, software, network infrastructure, storage and physical space needed for an ENS. It also offers you a way to try out the technology before making a major financial commitment

6.      Make sure the vendor offers hard-copy as well as electronic system documentation. In addition, have copies of each document/file stored in multiple secure locations.

7.      Ensure that your network infrastructure has sufficient bandwidth to handle bursts of traffic the ENS would generate during an emergency.

8.      Allow sufficient time when preparing your project plan for developing the database, user training, system management and system maintenance. A typical system often takes from a few weeks to a few months for installation and customer acceptance.

9.      Determine how to integrate ENS procedures into your BC/DR plan, incident response and emergency management plans; update your plan documentation with ENS-focused procedures. Then update your BC/DR plan, incident response and emergency management policies to incorporate the use of an ENS.

10.  Incorporate your emergency notification system in all exercise activities.

11.  Regularly ensure emergency notification system capabilities via test calls. You should also conduct an occasional large-scale blast of notification messages to ensure that the system sends the messages and can retrieve confirmations sent from users.

Be sure to compare the features available in a vendor’s base offerings, such as availability of managed ENS, 24/7 customer support, add-on features, as well as planning support for database development and system installation.

While emergency notification technologies have existed for many years, the current generation of systems is far superior to its predecessors. Using IP technology and the Internet, ENS technology today can simplify the process of generating emergency messages to thousands of recipients.

About this author: Paul Kirvan, CISA, FBCVI, CBCP, has more than 20 years experience in business continuity management as a consultant, author and educator. He has been directly involved with dozens of IT/telecom consulting and audit engagements ranging from governance program development, program exercising, execution and maintenance, and RFP preparation and response. Kirvan currently works as an independent business continuity consultant/auditor and is the secretary of the Business Continuity Institute USA chapter. He can be reached at pkirvan@msn.com.

This was first published in September 2011

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