Mass notification: what you need to knowWritten by Timothy Means Monday, 22 October 2012 11:27
The world of warning is undergoing rapid change. Today it is called mass notification, but methods for warning people about danger have been evolving for over 2,000 years.
The right place
There are two basic camps of notification: contacting people and contacting places. To notify effectively, you need to do both. Along these two lines, technologies fall into fairly neat groupings. Fire alarms, in-building and outdoor notification systems, PA systems, digital signage and IP phones systems are all location-based. These systems deliver their messages with urgency. They alert with siren, voice and /or text. With a location-based notification system, it doesn’t matter who is in the room or in the area, they will get the message. Best of all, most are selectable by zones such as rooms, floors or building groups. If you have buildings that you cannot target individually, then adding this layer should be a priority.
The ability to geo-target also determines how detailed the information can be. For example, if I can target a single building, my instruction set can identify specific exits, direct people to safe shelters and even to tell them how to report suspicious packages or persons.
As always, budget limitations can keep you from addressing all your buildings at once, but a phased in plan with a "worst comes first" prioritization will ensure you get the job done over time.
More recently, cell/text message systems have been used for emergency notification and one of the current fads is to use social networking sites to get the word out. These person-centric systems contact large numbers of people and those who may be mobile. This is a great new tool for contacting a select group of people, no matter where they are. But in terms of mass notification, calling tens of thousands of people does not push information directly to the affected site and can also trigger a spike on the cellular networks which may slow the message delivery. In addition, there can be issues with warnings getting caught up as spam or dropped among multiple carriers. At the end of the day, this approach uses consumer networks for emergency notification and should be one layer among many, not the primary tool.
The verdict is still out on how controllable social networking is for emergency notification. Certainly a Facebook post or a Twitter tweet from a legitimate authority can be effective. However, there is no restriction as to who can post to Facebook or Twitter, therefore anyone can act as a source of information. There exists the opportunity for inaccurate information or intentional misinformation.
The right time
Too late is too little. Message delivery speed is largely dependent on the technology used. Pulling a fire alarm system activates strobes and horns immediately. The same is true of sirens, PA systems and in-building notification systems that use wired or mesh networks.
Cell/text message systems that launch high call volumes can take from five to 60 minutes before all the calls are delivered. Of course, this will vary from one system to another. The initial warning calls will cause people to begin to call one another. Those new calls now travel on the same network as the warning messages, creating a spike on the network, slowing down the warning messages. This problem looms larger when the number of people being called is larger.
The biggest threat to message speed is a lack of redundant communications paths. The question you should be asking here is what happens when power and/or network is lost? One of the most exciting technologies being used is wireless mesh networks. These networks are self-healing in that they reconfigure new paths when repeaters go down and are independent of Ethernet, WiFi and Internet. Assess your emergency notification capabilities by knowing what operates when power is lost and make sure your data closets are backed up with Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS).
The goals of emergency notification are the same as they have ever been, but the tools and methods are rapidly changing. The buzzers, bells, beepers and whistles of the past will not meet the emergency notification standards of the future. Tomorrow’s notification will be targeted, information-rich and delivered in seconds. No matter what your current capabilities are today, make time to explore the changing landscape of new technologies and standards in emergency notification.
Timothy Means is director of product management at Metis Secure Solutions.