Emergency Notification

Disseminating information in a crisis:

Notification, Communication, and Your Crisis Plan


PART I: Notification

The most precious commodity during a crisis is information.  We’re all familiar with the feeling of wanting to know MORE about what is going on.  The major networks on TV along with the Cable News providers have capitalized on it. Even the Comedy Central Channel has capitalized on it with “The Daily Show with John Stewart” and “The Colbert Report”.  During a crisis the need for information is amplified. First responders need to know what is happening so they can respond effectively.  Organizations want to know what is happening to their employees and their operations. Relatives of people directly affected by the events want to know that their loved ones are safe.  Therefore when developing a crisis plan one must include the flow of information as an integral component of the plan.

In this two-part series we will review strategies for providing and receiving information before, during, and after a crisis.  The first part deals with “notification” strategies and services and the second part with “communication” strategies and solutions.

Many organizations confuse “notification” with “communication”. The difference is simple: Notification refers to information flowing in one direction only, while communication refers to information flowing in both directions.  The most basic notification system present in all buildings is the fire alarm system.  When the system is triggered an alarm is activated notifying occupants there is a problem. There is no further information other than the loud piercing siren.

Telephone Call Trees: Most of us can remember the telephone call trees.  One person calls a few others and relays important information for them to pass along to the people they, in turn, call.  In the absence of affordable technology, that process was the most efficient, but fraught with issues: what if you could not reach a person? How could you verify that the message was received? In addition, how could you be sure that the same message (without editorializing!), was being communicated by each and every individual? Finally, the call tree process can take substantial time to complete (especially if someone near the top of the tree is not reached immediately).

A more sophisticated system is the automated service that sends out an emergency email blast, text messages, and telephone calls (a “reverse 911” service) otherwise known as a mass notification service. That service allows an organization to “push” information out – i.e. communicate with stakeholders and interested parties. There are a plethora of companies that provide this service: Alertnow, One Call Now, Send Word Now, Everbridge, Red Alert System, Blackboard, as well as many more.  These services provide a unified platform with which you can send out a notification to a group (or subgroup) via voice, email, and SMS (text) and track whether it was received. Most of these services are quite similar but there are differences in price between them.  The differences can be based on the size of the contact list, number of messages allowed (one can negotiate a significantly lower rate if the system will only be used for true emergencies, therefore infrequently), and other advanced features.

Two important issues to consider before implementing a notification system are:

1.     What will the system be used for – true emergencies only or any type of notification?

2.     Who is authorized to activate the system?

The first issue is not only important for pricing consideration but also for efficacy reasons.  When people receive many messages they begin to mentally block them out and ignore them.  Clearly, that would defeat the purpose of having an emergency notification system in place!

Therefore we recommend having a clear definition of emergencies, when the system is to be used, and then to communicate that to the intended recipients.

Regulating the use of the system is another important decision to be made: Ideally only senior members of the crisis team can authorize the use of the system.  As mentioned above, it is important to define what is a crisis and when a situation is declared a crisis – otherwise the organization could be faced with a situation where a notification was issued and then retracted.  This can undermine the confidence recipients have in the organization and its leadership, let alone lead to confusion.

Mass notification is extremely useful in crisis situations when time is of the essence and a concise message needs to be conveyed (for example: a snow or weather related closing, a developing situation such as a lockdown, etc.) but does not provide a solution when stakeholders want further clarification or want to provide information back to the organization.  It does not allow a response. That’s what a communication plan is for. 

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