You could set up a call tree, and have every person call five other people until everyone was reached. Setting up one would be slow, and getting results would be even slower. Worse yet, the first thing that typically happens during local disasters is that the phone system is overwhelmed, making it difficult to reach anyone.
Or you could use an emergency notification service. Transmitting from multiple sites around the country, it will try to get your message to everyone on your list simultaneously, and will keep trying until it gets an answer from every person. Typically, it can be called on to try a variety of communications channels, in whatever order you specify.
Try everything, and keep trying
Channels mentioned by sources include office e-mail, home e-mail, home telephone, office telephone, office cell phone, home cell phone, text messaging, BlackBerry, fax, satellite phones, pagers, alternate phones at summer cottages and contacts for relatives who the employee might say with during a hurricane.
The disaster scenario above became real at 6:05 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 1, when the I-35W eight-lane highway bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis did collapse.
The Minneapolis office of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota sent out 4,079 emergency notifications at 8:03 p.m. that evening, says Bob Niebuhr, a business continuity specialist at the insurance company. It was using a system from MessageOne Inc. Located in Austin, it's one of about a half-dozen firms that offer emergency notification services.
"We were concerned that some of our people were on the road and could have been impacted," Niebuhr recalls. "We wanted to make sure they were OK, and if they were affected, we wanted to see if we could supply assistance. We also wanted to make sure we would be adequately staffed the next day. Third, we wanted to get information out to our employees as to what had happened."
The system first tried the recipients' work e-mail, because many employees have BlackBerries, Niebuhr says. If it didn't get through, it then tried the recipients' work cell phone, home telephone, personal cell phone, personal e-mail and finally an alternate home phone if available.
The message got through to all the recipients, mostly via e-mail. The first response came back within eight minutes, and after an hour, there was a 50% response rate. At that point, Blue Cross stopped sending out the notifications. Some responses came in the next day, and the total response rate was 68%, Niebuhr says.
Some of the recipients said it wasn't clear to them if and how they were supposed to respond, and some who called back to the corporate switchboard couldn't get through because they forgot their ID numbers. Also, the Caller ID of the notification call was an 866 number, leading some to assume it was a telemarketing call and they ignored it.
Although there had been internal publicity and training concerning the system, Niebuhr decided that more was needed, and his department has been mounting presentations since then, he says.
Also using the MessageOne system, the Minneapolis office of the international law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski LLP got better results with a smaller group. It sent out a telephone message at 9:58 that evening to its 60 local staffers. The message asked the recipients to press one to indicate that they were OK, and other numbers to indicate problems, says Matt Ridings, disaster recovery administrator in the law firm's Austin office.
If the alert reached an answering machine, it left a different message, asking the recipient to call back via a toll-free number. Those who received the message in e-mail format could simply reply the same way.
"We had a 65% response in 10 minutes, and 78% within 35 minutes," he recalls. "By the end of the evening, there were only seven people we did not know about, and we knew about every employee by 9:52 the next morning. The staff was impressed by the fact that the firm was proactive enough to try to reach out to them."
More mundane messages
But an event doesn't need to make global headlines before it counts as a disaster that could be remediated with emergency notification. At the Boston University medical campus, officials use their emergency notification system as often as twice a week, mostly for local headaches such as a utility interruption, says Steve Morash, BU's manager of emergency planning. He uses a service from Send Word Now (SWN) Communications Inc. in New York.
"Previously, we were using a manual paging system, but word would go out and not come back," Morash recalls. "With this system, we know who is going to be here, and in how many minutes." When recipients get a message, they are asked to not only say if they will be able to come in for the emergency but to press a button to give an indication of how long it will take them to arrive.
"I got one when I was on vacation in Bermuda. I indicated I would not be there within an hour," Morash notes.
The main Boston University campus, meanwhile, is installing a system intended to reach every student, staff member and faculty member, and it will be used only for life-and-death emergencies, Morash adds. He says that the president of Boston University ordered the system installed after the April 16 campus shootings at Virginia Tech, which left 33 dead.
Indeed, "Business is absolutely going up exponentially," says Paul D'Arcy, vice president of MessageOne.
"That [the Virginia Tech tragedy] stimulated a lot of demand," agrees Michael J. Sher, co-founder of SWN. "We find that every regional incident creates a surge of demand for our capabilities."
At SWN, the average customer has a call list of about 1,000 people and pays $25,000 to $35,000 yearly, Sher says. MessageOne's fees amount to "a few dollars per year per person," says D'Arcy.
But no one in the industry claims that technology is the total answer. In fact, Jacques Murphy, product manager at SunGard Availability Services in Wayne, Pa., cautions that overreliance on technology is a mistake. He boils emergency communications down to three steps: have a plan, test the plan and use technology appropriately.
"Having a plan means identifying the players, their roles and responsibilities, and creating call trees -- because you may have to fall back on manual methods," Murphy says. "Train everyone so they will know how to respond. Keep your communications simple and clear -- there isn't a lot of mental bandwidth during an emergency.
"Testing the plan means exercising it," Murphy says. "Thirty percent of the phone numbers may turn out to be wrong, or those who get the call may not understand the message because it was done via text-to-speech, or they ignored the Caller ID. But during a test, always state that it is a test.
"Third, don't rely on a technology solution -- you can't predict which device won't work. You need flexibility in terms of what devices are available, you need the ability to change on the fly and your operators need to be trained so they can decide on the fly," Murphy says.
Other advice from experts:
- Getting through is only the first step; any disaster communications plan should also cover who should talk to whom and what they should say, notes Alexander Tabb, head of the Tabb Group in New York. "Employees should report to their supervisor, supervisors should report to managers, managers should report to the leader," Tabb says. "You don't what the whole staff calling your senior vice president, because then he or she won't have time to make decisions." If the organization is going to broadcast a message for public consumption, decide in advance who will write and approve it, he adds.
- "I advise my clients to be aware of how to get in touch with the local fire or police department even if it means going there physically," says Philip Jan Rothstein, president of Rothstein Associates Inc. in Brookfield, Conn. "Know where the firehouse and the police station is located."
- Even when local lines are tied up, it may still be possible to make long-distance calls, notes Peter Oppenheim, president of Oppenheim Consulting LLC in Plainsboro, N.J. "I tell my friends if they cannot get in touch with me in New Jersey, they should contact a mutual friend in Tennessee; they might have a better chance of getting hold of that person."
- Expanding on that idea, it may be advisable to have a base station for everyone to call into and leave messages. A person, or an answering machine with multiple mailboxes, can do the job, Oppenheim notes.
- When all else fails, having a previously determined rendezvous point can be effective, Oppenheim adds.
- Even when the phone system appears to have been brought to its knees by overuse, some calls will still get through for callers who persist. "But that is not a game you want to be playing when it is a matter of life and death," says D'Arcy.
- If you're getting busy signals calling a cell phone, it still maybe possible to send text messages, notes Murphy. Text messages are stored for transmission when bandwidth is available.