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Communicating in a crisis

During a fire or bomb threat, most people don’t have time to flip through hundreds of pages in a binder, searching for crisis management procedures. In any response strategy, there needs to be an easy way of accessing information, but also a way to communicate that information to a hierarchy of employees.

ATB Financial in Alberta, was looking for a way to provide key staff with instant access to current crisis management plans, procedures and contacts, so it turned to the Wallace Incident Communicator.

The wireless software is designed for incident management and crisis communications, so organizations can automatically update their plans on handheld devices (the BlackBerry or other mobile platforms) whenever a change is made, so they have the most up-to-date versions of call lists and crisis management procedures.

Traditionally organizations have used binders filled with paper documentation to outline these procedures. But having a binder in your office and your home — and then ensuring those binders are consistently updated — is a nightmare, says Peter Trommelen, disaster recovery planner for ATB Financial and certified business continuity professional. They also tend to include a lot of “extra fluff,” which doesn’t lend itself to a nice lean script about what to do when an incident occurs.

“The auditors may be happy that you’ve got your processes, but in practice it’s a useless commodity,” he says. “I want lean processes that actually help the organization respond to things.”

Not being able to find that information can be costly. Research firm IDC estimates that not finding the right information costs enterprises an average of US$5.3 million per year.

Trommelen initially worked with Service Alberta to develop its business continuity plans and looked around for a tool to make that documentation readily available to employees during a crisis situation.

“You can almost put a book on a BlackBerry, and it’s simpler than a paper document because it drills down rapidly,” he says.

More recently, he helped implement the software, including an emergency contact list, for ATB Financial, and he’s starting to work on crisis communications ”“ but that requires a cultural change.

“It’s starting to use the power of technology for assisting in crisis management,” he said. “People have always been dealing with paper techniques and phone trees, which is unbelievably archaic when you think about it, given the technology that’s available that our kids are comfortable with.”

During a crisis situation, the software will call a person’s cell phone or send that person an e-mail message. But this process involves modifying some of the documentation in order to publish it in an appropriate format ”“ charts, for example, don’t lend themselves well to the BlackBerry.

“It keeps it nice and terse instead of these big binders that historically have been floating around,” said Trommelen. “Typically within those binders it’s the contact information that changes rapidly and you’re never sure if people have the current information.”

Now, he can modify the source document within five minutes and push it through the admin console to the authorized BlackBerrys. What this does in most office settings is capitalize on a tool that people tend to have with them 24 hours a day anyway, he says.

A byproduct of going through this process, he added, is that it forces you to be far more lean in your communications, particularly when adrenaline is running high in the middle of an incident.

There are other applications that could also be added in the future. With the newer version of the BlackBerry, you could potentially keep track of all Wallace-enabled BlackBerrys with GPS and mapping. “For firefighters in the forest, that might be useful,” he said. “With office workers, I can’t see how I would use that.” It’s also possible to view footage from video cameras on a BlackBerry device.

“When we first brought this to market, not everybody was sure what we were doing because they didn’t really think through the problem,” says Rob Moffat, president and co-founder of Wallace Wireless. The vendor develops off-the-shelf mobile content management software for business continuity and mobile information management; its latest release, Wallace Incident Commander 4.1, allows customers to manage and personal their portals.

But after 9/11, this changed. “We realized that this was not only something that the broader financial services community could use, but it spanned different verticals,” he says.

One of its first customers was the Bank of Nova Scotia, where the business continuity director asked the vendor to do something about its binder, where it kept its security plans, procedures and checklists. The director said that information stored on a CD-ROM or memory stick was also a problem, because the user still had to get to a computer to access that information. But, if they had it on their hip, they’d leave the building with it.

“Especially in the financial services community, it’s imperative that security be maintained,” says Moffat, “and the BlackBerry is the device of choice there.”

This inspired Wallace Wireless to come up with a solution that allowed the bank to store this binder on a handheld device; it was originally rolled out on the pager-style BlackBerry 950.

This could be updated wirelessly, so if a manager changed something in a Word document, the software would pick that up and automatically update all the handhelds in the field. “Even if the networks weren’t available, customers had the latest cut of the binder on their hip,” says Moffat.

Financial services organizations are also mandated to store all of their electronic messages between two to seven years, depending on the type of organization. So, if the company’s servers are unavailable and users are still pinging each other on their BlackBerrys, that information is logged and the database updated when it’s back online.

“That provides them with a redundant means of communication in a crisis, but it also allows them to ensure they’ll be compliant,” he said. Some 35-40 per cent of its customer base is in the financial services industry, and about 70 per cent of its customer base is in the U.S.

A BlackBerry can be locked down, so if you’re not the user, you can’t get access to any information. There are also other layers of security that can be added, such as password protection (the IT administrator can set a rule as to how many passwords can be entered before the device is wiped). And there are also different encryption technologies available on the market for handheld devices.

One newer method is incorporating the BlackBerry Bluetooth smart card reader, which is currently popular with the military and law enforcement. Users wear a stripped-down BlackBerry around their neck and slide a smart card in the front. Their laptop, desktop and any other device is then enabled by Bluetooth. “But if I walk 10 feet away, none of them will be accessible,” says Moffat, “so it adds the layer of presence to the whole security perimeter.”

But if an organization is printing out thousands of pages for its employees on crisis management, it becomes a security risk in and of itself. “You’ve got so much of this critical information in printed form,” he said. “If somebody steals the briefcase or the car, all that information is then available.”


July 25, 2007
By Vawn Himmelsbach

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