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Emergency Notification Systems: Considerations for Business Continuity Effectiveness

By Matt Donahue | Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

If communicating to your employees, investors, vendors, and partners is important on a daily basis, then ensuring effective communication during a disaster or disruption should be a priority, too. There are many reasons why it may be advantageous for a firm to consider utilizing an Emergency Notification System (ENS) in order to ensure that internal and external parties are kept informed and updated. Traditional calling trees are cumbersome and time consuming, and emails -- especially outside of business hours -- can often be overlooked. Today, notifications systems can quickly and effectively send messages using a variety of delivery methods. It’s no wonder many companies large and small are moving to these kinds of systems. However, finding the right system requires some thought and planning. This article will cover some items firms may want to consider when shopping for a notification system.

System Architecture

Does the system require on site hardware or is it hosted online or a hybrid of the two?Emergency Notifications

  • On Site: This option is rarely utilized, and it means that hardware/software will have to be added locally to the firm’s infrastructure to sync up with the system. Depending on the current IT set up, firms may want to discuss this option with their IT administrator or provider to ensure it is feasible. This option can be vulnerable if there are local issues affecting the firm’s office because it will most likely also affect the notification system.  

  • Hosted online: This means that the vendor hosts the hardware and software needed for service. This is a good option because it doesn’t require any on-site hardware, adds redundancy, and allows for reduced administrative overhead.  

  • Hybrid system: This essentially includes some combination of an on-site and hosted hardware/software needed for service. This setup is rare, but again, offered by some vendors. If your firm chooses to go with a hybrid model, make sure you understand any vulnerabilities beforehand. 

Notification Features and Capabilities

Every system on the market will have special features and capabilities, and while it’s important to understand them, it may be more important not to get distracted by all the bells and whistles. In terms of business continuity there are some features you may want to consider as a part of your BCP plan/emergency procedures.

  • SMS texting: While this may not be the fanciest feature of a notification service, short message servicing (SMS texting) may work where other features will not. During the fallout of disasters and emergencies, many people often experience coverage interruptions. Unlike with a phone call, a text message will wait in queue and will be sent, which is why SMS is commonly recommended during times of high call volumes. 

  • Two-way messaging: This is a great feature that will allow message recipients to provide basic responses to questions that can be posed within the message. This can be helpful to the message sender and offers minimal disturbance to the receiver. 

  • Mobile/remote access: Disasters and disruptions don’t generally occur when it’s convenient for a firm. If the system can be activated and operated remotely or from a mobile device, it makes it more versatile and a more valuable tool for business recovery. 

  • Canned/scheduled messaging: Having a “canned” message can save time – a factor that is critical an emergency situation. For example, being able to send a generic message to the firm’s employees during a building evacuation that will help with accountability and safety helps to save time and reduce additional steps that might be needed following such an event. Scheduling notifications in advance, when possible, can reduce the burden on firms during a chaotic situation. 

Customer Service/Assistance

This is often where the good vendors are separated from the rest. Technology is rarely fool-proof, therefore, leveraging a company with good, reliable customer service and assistance is essential. Especially if an important message needs to be sent impromptu or by someone who is unfamiliar with the product, knowing your firm can rely on the notification system vendor will ease some of the stress. 

  • Training: Having a vendor who can offer training is a great advantage because it will foster education without having to use additional firm resources or personnel. It also means there will be a standard level of knowledge disseminated across all staff instead of trickled down, where some details can be lost. 

  • 24x7 assistance/technical help: Sometimes there are issues that can’t be solved, even if firm employees are proficient with the software. Vendors who can offer 24x7x365 technical assistance are valuable assets to answer questions or provide assistance in sending a notification.

Service Limitations and Availability

Firms should do their homework on notification systems on the market to ensure access to both coverage and availability at all times. If a firm’s desired coverage area and availability aren’t completely satisfied, they should strongly consider alternatives.

  • National and international service limitations: Most services will have most of the United States covered and will likely have some international service offerings (often with additional fees), but they may not have complete global coverage. Ensure that intended recipients’ service areas (systems employees, clients, vendors, and partners) will be covered.

  • Redundant infrastructure/DR capabilities: During discussions with vendors, make sure you discuss redundant infrastructure and if it satisfies the firm’s expectations for service. If one site/office is experiencing a local event and loses its ability to function, are there contingencies in place to support alternate sites and ensure they will have continuousness availability without diminished service? 

Pricing

There are a variety of payment options and pricing models offered that can impact the total cost of the notification service and ultimately whether you choose one company over another. It all depends on your specific firm and how you plan to use your system. Below are examples of some options available and some of the potential drawbacks.

  • Upfront unlimited: This is usually the most expensive option. Normally, these vendors allow large amounts of controlled contacts which means your firm provides the contact information with no cost for sending messages (with limitations). Other types of upfront systems can have features allowing recipients to sign up, usually online, and choose specifics on the notifications they receive. The main difference is control of contact information where the firm uploads the information and where the other relies on the end recipient. 

  • Price per contact: Some prices can be based on the number of contacts able to be contacted or messaged. These plans can be less expensive, but it depends on how many contacts are included in the system. 

  • Price for usage call/text: Potentially one of the most affordable options can be a service where only actual use of the systems is billed. While this may seem like the most cost-effective solution, there may be some limitations to the service, and firms always need to pay attention to ongoing costs as the system is being utilized. 

There are a lot of variables to consider when selecting an automated notification system to leverage during a business disruption. For best results, come up with a plan for minimal needs and compare pricing, features and services across multiple vendors. Keep an eye out for any hang ups, such as no service coverage in desired areas or on site requirements that are undesired. After these items are vetted, you should have a better idea of which vendor and service will work best for your firm’s needs.

Business Continuity Planning Guidebook

Photo Credit: Pixabay

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