April 2009 Archives

Emergency Notification at NASA-Part 2

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Two days ago I wrote about NASA's IP-based emergency notification system deployed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. By way of follow-up, I spoke with Matthew Soltis, lead of office of emergency management, about some of the lessons the center has learned in the year they have been using the system.

Known internally as Systematic Recall & Emergency Notification (SyREN), the JSC's emergency notification system is an IWSAlert package from AtHoc Inc. The system got a major workout to during Hurricane Ike in September. JSC, located in southeast Houston, was in the direct path of the storm as it drove north from its landfall in Galveston. Soltis and Alan Mather, chief of NASA's Protective Services Division both said they have been pleased with the performance of the system.

Notification itself is just one of three aspects to the emergency notification process, Soltis said. The two others are communications and accountability. Understanding the entire process is key to understanding the strengths and weaknesses of any emergency notification system, and getting the most from it.

Notification messages, the system's primary responsibility, need to be short and action oriented. They advise the recipient to take a specific action and should be communicated in 140 characters or less. This allows them to fit within a wireless text message, either directly or through a service such as Twitter as well as be transmitted quickly by voice over the phone. Examples of these short notification massages would be:

Shooting at 2nd St. and Ave. C. Look door, Shelter in place.
Fire on 3rd Floor, Section B, Exit building via Doors 1,2,3 or 4. Do not use Doors 5 or 6.
Tornado Warning. Seek shelter in basement.
In this context, said Soltis, communications constitute additional information about the emergency, ranging from one paragraph of text to one page. Notifications systems should support communications, but users should not make them the medium for their transmission. Even a paragraph can be too long, not just for a text message but also when converted to voice. Instead, text messages, voice messages or emails should direct recipients to relevant web pages or attachments or maps. For example, during Ike, notification messages included links to live weather updates.

The AtHoc system lets recipients acknowledge a message through a multi-choice prompt that they can use to tell command and control center they are either OK or need help. Forensically, it allows Soltis and his team to look back after the fact and see how personnel responded, with what device, how they acknowledged receipt.

If there is a hitch in emergency notification systems in general, Soltis said, is that they require an outgoing message to be sent before a command center can get a full measure of who's safe. What's needed, Soltis said, was a way for affected personnel to communicate their situation "unsolicited," that is, without first receiving an advisory. As with most organizations, "we are relying in information provided voluntarily." While the center generally knows its employee's workplaces, email addresses and desk phones, it doesn't always have up-to-date cell phone numbers.

"We want a way people can check in to say they are OK or need help."
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April 2009 Archives