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Risk Management Bulletin


By June 1, 2011No Comments

The disastrous Japanese earthquake/tsunami of March 11 drowned thousands of people – but the toll would have been far higher without the nation’s comprehensive emergency notification system. Thanks to radio broadcasts, text messages, sirens, firefighters’ door-to-door calls, and just plain instinct honed by years of disaster drills at school, people from towns and villages along the coast saved themselves by fleeing immediately to higher ground.

Every business needs an effective emergency communications notification system. This analysis should provide a good start on evaluating and selecting the most appropriate system.

Low-tech emergency notification systems, such as alarms, sirens, intercom systems, telephone calling trees, etc. all have serious limitations. Although calling trees are valuable for mass communications, they’re slow, subject to message error, and even complete breakdown from “missing links” or the failure of general voice communication systems. Alarms and sirens (used to communicate a facility evacuation or an emergency lockdown) are fast and can alert everyone who’s in a dangerous area; however, they’re poor in providing detailed information and ineffective outside of their audible range. Intercom systems are reasonably fast and can communicate detailed information, but are generally limited when providing information to people in multiple buildings. Nearly all low-tech systems send outbound messages, with a limited or non-existent ability to receive inbound calls (“two-way communications”).

High-tech emergency notification systems provide automated mass notification of detailed messages rapidly and accurately to a wide range of communication devices, including phones (landline, cell, and satellite), computers (e-mail and instant messaging), PDAs, Blackberries, and others. These systems combine speed, coverage, and detail far more effectively than low-tech systems. During emergency events, individual communication infrastructures often fail. The ability of high-tech systems to use multiple communication infrastructures offers another important advantage over their low-tech counterparts. High-tech systems can also target special messages to individual groups, such as first responders only. Some of them can receive inbound calls – a vital feature to confirm that key initial responders have received the message.

However, high-tech emergency notification systems do not offer a panacea. For one thing, cell phones (the most common method of notification) might be turned off. Although communication with cell phones is available by voice mail or text messaging, the system is vulnerable to a breakdown of the general voice communication infrastructure. Particularly for larger businesses, the “call capacity” – essentially the overall speed of the system – might be a serious limitation. To be effective, a system must communicate emergency information. Some of the more basic systems utilize only voice communications. Other important factors include ease-of-use and system cost

Although there’s no such thing as a perfect system, the best system should blend high-tech and low-tech systems. A good high-tech system, combined with adequate alarms and sirens appears to provide effective communications for all types of emergency events.