Eight Things to Know About Mass Notification

| 0 Comments | 0 TrackBacks
Mass notification systems (MNS) have been quietly entering a new generation. Most security professionals point to the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech as pivotal in the push for systems that are faster, more reliable and scalable enough to reach tens of thousands of people within a few minutes.

IP networking has been a boon to achieving these goals because the conventional mass notification approach, right up to the Virginia Tech shooting, was centered on "great voice." Only afterward did security officials realize how the pervasiveness of personal communications, such as wireless phones, email, Web and other networking platforms, could be incorporated into MNS.

After Virginia Tech, MNS strategies began to concentrate on integrating "great voice" models--loudspeakers, digital signage and TV monitors--with personal communications equipment closer or even personal to the individual. CSOs have been working with IT departments to link human resources and other personnel databases into centralized announcement systems that can deliver emergency alerts in a number of ways.

In the two years that have elapsed since the Virginia Tech incident, universities and corporate campuses that take in thousands of employees, contractors, students and visitors on a daily basis have been learning new lessons about how best to operate an IP-centric MNS.

Based on our producers' interviews with a variety of MNS users and vendors during the last year, including the large stalwarts moving to IP-based solutions and younger start-ups with a pure IP focus, I've culled seven basic practices to keep in mind when planning or upgrading a system. My hope is to begin a dialogue here. Feel free to share your own insights and comments.

Plan and train
Most organizations have general emergency procedures in place, including designated personnel who are responsible for assuring all employees are accounted for. Fire drills traditionally train and sharpen group responses to an emergency. Regular drills incorporating MNS should not be much of a change. However, they will train employees to turn to their personal devices for information. Newer MNS systems allow command center personnel to use pre-set messages. That allows policies and procedures to be in place that are tied to many MNS situations. Syracuse University and NASA's Johnson Space Center have "branded" their emergency response systems (Orange Alert and SyREN, respectively) to reinforce awareness.

In an emergency, keep messages short
In an emergency situation, people will be emotional, scared and prone to panic. Initial messages should be short, direct, authoritative commands that provide accurate information about the situation and specific instructions. A typical message might be "Hazmat release in Building A, Shelter in Place." or "Fire in Building C. If you are in Building 10, exit via Doors 2, 3 or 5. All others stay clear of the area."  

Update frequently
Panic results from lack of information. While messages should be short, do not be afraid to provide regular updates. If those sheltering in place know they are across campus from the actual incident, that fact can alleviate tension caused by uncertainty. For those at the center of an emergency, a message that first responders are on the scene and in the building will keep people in one place and increase the likelihood of a successful and complete evacuation.
 
Text messaging reigns
Most people carry their mobile phones with them. Therefore text messaging is among the fastest ways to get information to a large number of people. It has proved effective during shooting incidents at Syracuse University and Northern Illinois University. Registration is critical to successful text messaging. Some people are reluctant to share cell phone numbers, but that reticence may fade when the request is presented in the context of emergency communications. Because cell phone numbers change, it doesn't hurt to nag employees to keep their information up to date. This can be managed through easy-to-use Web-based interfaces that students and staff can use to update their own records.

Provide a response mechanism
Right now, mass notification is all outbound. Security professionals would like a mechanism whereby employees can pro-actively communicate with a command center to indicate they are OK or need help even if they did not receive an initial notification. The AtHoc MNS used by the Johnson Space Center provides an easy way for respondents to immediately reply on their status. This aids the command center in accounting for people and determining where to concentrate response efforts.

There's no such thing as too much redundancy
The goal is to reach 100 percent of the affected population. Systems should be geared to send messages via text, email, phone, signage, cable TV and any other personal and mass communications media used on campus. Of these, keep in mind that voice calls take the longest. Generally, phone servers can deliver 500 calls per minute. That means 10,000 calls would take 20 minutes. The benefit of converged systems is that, being managed from a single point, they allow messages to be consistent across all platforms. There's no conflicting information or directives.

Plan for peak load
When an emergency hits, you are going to put a lot of strain on the network. Syracuse University's MNS must encompass 27,000 users; NIU, 23,000; NASA's Johnson Space Center, 15,000. A wireless system could interpret a burst of MNS traffic as a denial of service attack and immediately throttle down the very cell sites needed to transmit emergency messages. Security and IT departments recommend advising local wireless service providers about your mass notification plan so this won't happen. Likewise, mail and web servers need to be configured to handle the commensurate huge load of traffic. NIU has six dedicated servers in place to support MNS. Other options include the use of hosted servers in data centers located around the country, an approach Syracuse University uses with its vendor, Mir3

Stay current
As your kids might say, texting is so 2008! Social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Plaxo, and microblogs such as Twitter are just as much as part of everyday communications as email and text. These, too, can be brought into an MNS environment (think redundancy). During and after the Virginia Tech shootings, it turned out these platforms were among the first to have accurate information about the shooter and the victims rather than the university itself. Keep up with the technology your personnel and visitors use.
 

Mass notification systems (MNS) have been quietly entering a new generation. Most security professionals point to the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech as pivotal in the push for systems that are faster, more reliable and scalable enough to reach tens of thousands of people within a few minutes.

IP networking has been a boon to achieving these goals because the conventional mass notification approach, right up to the Virginia Tech shooting, was centered on "great voice." Only afterward did security officials realize how the pervasiveness of personal communications, such as wireless phones, email, Web and other networking platforms, could be incorporated into MNS.

After Virginia Tech, MNS strategies began to concentrate on integrating "great voice" models--loudspeakers, digital signage and TV monitors--with personal communications equipment closer or even personal to the individual. CSOs have been working with IT departments to link human resources and other personnel databases into centralized announcement systems that can deliver emergency alerts in a number of ways.

In the two years that have elapsed since the Virginia Tech incident, universities and corporate campuses that take in thousands of employees, contractors, students and visitors on a daily basis have been learning new lessons about how best to operate an IP-centric MNS.

Based on our producers' interviews with a variety of MNS users and vendors during the last year, including the large stalwarts moving to IP-based solutions and younger start-ups with a pure IP focus, I've culled seven basic practices to keep in mind when planning or upgrading a system. My hope is to begin a dialogue here. Feel free to share your own insights and comments.

Plan and train
Most organizations have general emergency procedures in place, including designated personnel who are responsible for assuring all employees are accounted for. Fire drills traditionally train and sharpen group responses to an emergency. Regular drills incorporating MNS should not be much of a change. However, they will train employees to turn to their personal devices for information. Newer MNS systems allow command center personnel to use pre-set messages. That allows policies and procedures to be in place that are tied to many MNS situations. Syracuse University and NASA's Johnson Space Center have "branded" their emergency response systems (Orange Alert and SyREN, respectively) to reinforce awareness.

In an emergency, keep messages short
In an emergency situation, people will be emotional, scared and prone to panic. Initial messages should be short, direct, authoritative commands that provide accurate information about the situation and specific instructions. A typical message might be "Hazmat release in Building A, Shelter in Place." or "Fire in Building C. If you are in Building 10, exit via Doors 2, 3 or 5. All others stay clear of the area."  

Update frequently
Panic results from lack of information. While messages should be short, do not be afraid to provide regular updates. If those sheltering in place know they are across campus from the actual incident, that fact can alleviate tension caused by uncertainty. For those at the center of an emergency, a message that first responders are on the scene and in the building will keep people in one place and increase the likelihood of a successful and complete evacuation.
 
Text messaging reigns
Most people carry their mobile phones with them. Therefore text messaging is among the fastest ways to get information to a large number of people. It has proved effective during shooting incidents at Syracuse University and Northern Illinois University. Registration is critical to successful text messaging. Some people are reluctant to share cell phone numbers, but that reticence may fade when the request is presented in the context of emergency communications. Because cell phone numbers change, it doesn't hurt to nag employees to keep their information up to date. This can be managed through easy-to-use Web-based interfaces that students and staff can use to update their own records.

Provide a response mechanism
Right now, mass notification is all outbound. Security professionals would like a mechanism whereby employees can pro-actively communicate with a command center to indicate they are OK or need help even if they did not receive an initial notification. The AtHoc MNS used by the Johnson Space Center provides an easy way for respondents to immediately reply on their status. This aids the command center in accounting for people and determining where to concentrate response efforts.

There's no such thing as too much redundancy
The goal is to reach 100 percent of the affected population. Systems should be geared to send messages via text, email, phone, signage, cable TV and any other personal and mass communications media used on campus. Of these, keep in mind that voice calls take the longest. Generally, phone servers can deliver 500 calls per minute. That means 10,000 calls would take 20 minutes. The benefit of converged systems is that, being managed from a single point, they allow messages to be consistent across all platforms. There's no conflicting information or directives.

Plan for peak load
When an emergency hits, you are going to put a lot of strain on the network. Syracuse University's MNS must encompass 27,000 users; NIU, 23,000; NASA's Johnson Space Center, 15,000. A wireless system could interpret a burst of MNS traffic as a denial of service attack and immediately throttle down the very cell sites needed to transmit emergency messages. Security and IT departments recommend advising local wireless service providers about your mass notification plan so this won't happen. Likewise, mail and web servers need to be configured to handle the commensurate huge load of traffic. NIU has six dedicated servers in place to support MNS. Other options include the use of hosted servers in data centers located around the country, an approach Syracuse University uses with its vendor, Mir3

Stay current
As your kids might say, texting is so 2008! Social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Plaxo, and microblogs such as Twitter are just as much as part of everyday communications as email and text. These, too, can be brought into an MNS environment (think redundancy). During and after the Virginia Tech shootings, it turned out these platforms were among the first to have accurate information about the shooter and the victims rather than the university itself. Keep up with the technology your personnel and visitors use.
 

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL: http://www.securitysquared.com/cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/41

Leave a comment