Relying only on text messages to communicate alerts to your people during an emergency is not enough. Taking an ‘omnimodal’ approach is required to maximize safety and security.
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Emergencies do not run on a clock. If injury or illness takes a community unaware, the results can be disastrous. Crises cannot be predicted, nor entirely prevented, but they can be planned for. Through human ingenuity and reason, the effects of a disaster can be minimized. Communities that take the time to prepare for potential threats and equip themselves accordingly - with a carefully considered series of actions - are empowered during an emergency.
And yet, in dire times, we are most susceptible to error. Emergencies take many forms—hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, hazardous materials, active shooters, and so forth. Not a single one is easy to handle. Whether we are seized by the urge to flee, frozen by the paralysis of fear, moved to inaction by the bystander effect, or merely shaky with nerves, humans are highly fallible during times of high-stress.
Only a streamlined, automated technology is capable of engineering human error out of crises.
What schools, corporations, healthcare facilities, warehouses, and public venues need is a unified mass notification system (MNS), also called an emergency notification system (ENS). This is defined as a platform that delivers an alerting message to a small or large group of people—anywhere, anytime, on any device or service, all at once. At the single touch of a button, customized messages are sent to the people who need to see them through the modalities most likely to reach them.
We must be able to communicate quickly and efficiently if we intend to protect what matters most. For many people, this is a personal, moral obligation, but there are also legal requirements to be considered. For instance, The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has stringent standards for workplace safety. The Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (The Clery Act) requires that all college campuses have the ability to disseminate emergency notifications immediately.
Alert and notification systems (also known as mass notification systems or emergency notification systems) are best positioned to fulfill these needs. Phone trees are obsolete. Individual messaging is inadequate. Even mass texts are not reliable. Only those who are armed with a full suite of crisis communications are empowered to do all they can do. In that way, emergency response administrators provide maximum protection for their people while simultaneously minimizing any damage inflicted on a community’s assets.
Alert and notification systems come in many shapes and forms. Classically, emergency alerts have been dispersed via text or email, the lifeblood of modern communication. If messages are sent individually (such as in a phone tree format), this is, of course, a painstaking and inefficient process. A step up would be a mass alert that delivers messages from a single platform to multiple people at once—the mass text or email, for instance. Neither will be sufficient in a crisis. Virginia Tech had these systems in place, but without automation, no emergency notification was dispersed until twenty minutes after the shooter began to unload his weapons.
Almost as important as an automation feature is a feature that enables communication. In their earliest iterations, mass notification systems did not allow for interfacing between parties. They were limited to one-way communication, from the person sending to the person receiving.
Sometimes, this is exactly what a community needs. For example, CMAS, which includes AMBER Alerts, Presidential Alerts, and Imminent Threat Alerts, is a mass notification system that operates in this way. It is excellent for reaching large populations from a federal, state, or city level, but it is limited in the same way that most systems of this kind are.
First, these kinds of alert and notification systems only offer one-way communication. Effective communication needs to go two ways. Within most communities and institutions, it benefits emergency responders to be able to gather ground-level insights from the community, which helps them make more informed decisions.
Second, with these more generalized systems, the recipients are not subdivided into multiple groups. This makes it harder to use within smaller communities. For example, in a university, an emergency response administrator might benefit from sending different emergency alerts to various parties. Students are told to shelter in place. Teachers and personnel are given instructions on how to secure a lab or classroom. Authorized emergency personnel receive more specific details regarding how to bring the crisis to a close.
These groups may also need to receive messages through different devices. Being able to disperse information through every possible avenue of communication increases the likelihood that community members will see the alert. No single line of communication has 100% reach. We do not always have our phones on us. Nor do we have constant access to our emails. We may not hear an announcement over a loudspeaker, and we may mistake a fire alarm for a drill. It is necessary to pursue as many forms of communication as possible in order to ensure maximum reach and effectiveness.
Since not just any mass notification system will suffice, there are a few features to look for when determining what your crisis communications technology should provide for your community. When it comes to alert and notification systems, it is critical that the technology can easily integrate with other systems, is hosted offsite on a cloud, and comes from an experienced provider.
Integrable. The best of alert and notification systems will be integrable, meaning they can integrate with third-party systems like other informational mobile apps, fire alarms, IT systems, access control systems, weather alerts and sensors, manufacturing or process control systems, hazardous materials detection systems, and even speed cameras. When all of these are accessible at the touch of a button, an emergency response is as tight and streamlined as it can be.
Hosted Cloud System. For true ease-of-use, you should consider alert and notification systems that keep information on a secure cloud. First, this protects the system from any on-site threats. If the issue is a natural disaster, for instance, and the power goes, you will not be able to send the information your community needs. Hosted clouds also eliminate the hassle and costs associated with software patches, upgrades, regular backups, security audits, spam filtering, virus scanning, software firewall configuration, and updates. Omnilert’s failure-resistant infrastructure, for example, has had a 99.999% uptime since 2010.
Experience. It is estimated that within the next year, the use of alert and notification systems will grow 20%. More hospitals, campuses, and businesses are recognizing the importance of emergency preparedness. Inevitably, the emergency notification industry is growing. But, when it comes to crises, you do not want to rely on anything less than a proven provider. Being the guinea pig of a fledgling company is far from ideal during an emergency. Look for a capable service provider who has carefully crafted their product and refined it over the years.
The best-case scenario is that you will never have to rely on crisis communications technology. The second-best scenario is Scenarios®, the key technology feature of Omnilert. Here’s how it works.
The most important part of responding to a crisis begins before the disaster ever happens. Careful, thoughtful pre-planning can be the difference between life and death. Scenarios facilitates this process by allowing emergency response administrators to quickly set up contacts and preconfigure messages based on any and all foreseeable crises.
This also requires administrators to think through every possible threat, and that preparedness is critical to the success of an emergency response. Scenarios is meant to prepare users for anything.
Should a crisis occur, administrators are ready for the situation through Scenarios. Messages are released at the touch of a button or can even be triggered by third-party systems like weather alerts and fire alarms. These preconfigured plans can also include resources like first responders and police.
Alerts are disseminated to every contact in the system through the recipient’s preferred modality/device(s). The significance of this immediacy is that human error is mitigated.
Initial messages can be followed with more detailed information.
Reliable, efficient updates and instructions maximize safety, which allows emergency response administrators to handle the crisis better.
No matter how well-planned a Scenario might be, there is likely room for improvement. After the event, it is critical to debrief and analyze what happened so that the plan can be fine-tuned.
A notification is not enough. Not by itself. Take, for instance, the Aurora, Colorado shooting in 2012. In response to the active shooter, a fire alarm was activated. It informed moviegoers there was an emergency. What it did not tell them was the nature of that emergency and that it would be best to shelter in place. Consequently, the assailant began firing at victims who tried to exit.
The key to an effective system is no secret: keep people safe by keeping them connected during a crisis. Emergency notification systems can save lives when implemented correctly, and Omnilert is the leading, integrated ENS for sending time-sensitive information to groups of people, thanks to our platform’s rapid, efficient, and multifaceted form of communication. No matter who you are—an enterprise with employees’ best interest in mind, a medical facility providing security for patients, or university officials watching out for students and staff alike—alert and notification systems are a critical part of any emergency response.
While the success of your emergency response is predicated on the planning and technology behind the response, it also depends on whether or not the community is able to receive alerts.
How can you ensure that every member of your community receives an alert? While no single mode of communication has 100% reach, multimodality (or omnimodality, as we call it) ensures that your reach is the greatest it can possibly be.
With a single click of a button, you increase the odds that a particular recipient received your message promptly because you are instantly reaching them in the most relevant way to them. Community members who opt-in for messages on their personal devices can select both the content they wish to receive, plus the modalities they want to be contacted through.
Omnimodality is vital for a few reasons. First, not every person is inclined to receive information in the same way. For instance, while most people have phones, there is no guarantee that they will have their phone with them when a mass notification is disseminated. Even if they do have their mobile device on them, there is no guarantee that it is audible.
In a public venue, emergency response administrators would have a difficult time reaching people through their phones unless they had previously opted into an alert and notification system. In cases like these, a PA system might seem like the best option, but the success of an auditory message depends entirely on the ability to hear it. Likewise, to rely only on visual signals (e.g., screen displays and digital signage) is to assume that everyone is in a position to see them.
For that reason, a one-dimensional approach is bound to fail. Omnimodality is critical for emergency response administrators who want to maximize their reach. This is because for each line of communication pursued, the likelihood that recipients will see or hear the message increases. It is a best practice to pursue every avenue of communication available.
Omnimodality is also essential for the redundancy it ensures. In post-crisis analysis, it has often been shown that even when individuals do receive emergency notifications, they do not always respond as expected. In some cases, recipients might freeze. In other cases, if the crisis is not immediately evident, notifications may be dismissed as drills or mistakes.
For instance, a 2011 tornado in Joplin killed hundreds and injured nearly a thousand, even though alert beacons had sounded the alarm well in advance. During post-crisis analysis, Joplin survivors revealed that they had believed the alert was a drill until they had received the information through TV, radio, or another, secondary source. This issue can be partially addressed before crises occur. It is critical to be proactive and communicate to group members, in a non-fear-based way, that any alerts they see or hear should be taken seriously.
For one reason or another, it is often the case that recipients need more than one call to action—which means the more effective alert and notification systems have multimodal capabilities.
Phones & Tablets
In an age where some of us might spend more time staring at screens than human faces, phones and tablets are two of the most rapid means of communication. Consider this:
Almost 80% of Americans own smartphones.
Half of the public owns a tablet.
Consumers spend an average of 5 hours on mobile devices each day.
Given their pervasiveness, phones and tablets are a significant part of successful alert and notification systems. Traditionally, phones were used in emergencies to receive mass texts or a reverse 911 calling mechanism. By themselves, these methods of communication were an insufficient means of alerting. Today, phones can be utilized in a range of ways.
A mobile phone might chirp at the arrival of a text message even as traditional wired telephones ring with automated voice messages. Even Fring, Skype, MSN Messenger, Google Talk, and other Voice over Internet Protocol software applications can be integrated. In accordance with the times, mobile apps—along with iPads and other tablet devices—can also receive emergency messages. Push notifications are yet another line of communication.
Inbound hotlines are a potential feature of alert and notification systems, as well. Administrators can rapidly create messages through both text-to-speech alerts or preconfigured voice messages. Through a specified phone number, community members can call and listen to updates without the system crashing or placing callers on hold.
For two-way communication, outbound conferencing can be an essential asset. A secure and private line can be accessed at the touch of a button by a pre-defined group. Instantly, key members of the emergency response team can collaborate during time-sensitive crises.
Despite the ubiquity of screens, these alone cannot comprise complete alert and notification systems. We do not always have our phones on us, they are not always on, and cell service is not always dependable. These devices are only one piece of a comprehensive emergency notification system.
Email and Web
As the lifeblood of the corporate world, email can scarcely be overlooked as a means of delivering emergency notifications. Having emails that are customized to different kinds of recipients is an integral part of alert and notification systems and might include both work and personal email accounts depending on the context. Whatever an organization’s emergency notification system, it should be capable of “single entry email delivery,” or S.E.E.D, so that administrators can automatically reach everyone within their current distribution. That way, the contact information for recipients updates as soon as they are added to or removed from the internal list.
Web pages can also be updated to include information on a current crisis. No technical experience is needed to quickly integrate alert and notification systems with an organization’s own website (for instance, the log-in/homepage of a school’s WiFi). It would be inefficient as a sole solution, but as an additional line of communication, it can bolster a comprehensive suite of crisis communications.
There are other computer-based options to be considered, such as widgets or desktop pop-up alerts. If a teacher has a no-phones policy and is delivering a morning lecture via their laptop, a desktop alert would appear on the projection.
An emergency information hub or personalized portal (e.g., MyYahoo, Google, or AOL pages) are even better options for some organizations. It is crucial that the community knows how to access these resources before they are ever actually needed—that is to say, before a crisis ever actually transpires. They should be easily accessible to everyone within the organization, by both the editors who update the feeds and the community members who need the information. These hubs can be quickly updated by those in charge of editing it in order to present the most up-to-date information regarding a crisis. That way, people know everything they need to know at a given moment.
Similarly, RSS feeds and readers can also be implemented. Rich Site Summary (also known as Really Simple Syndication) is an aggregate web and device feed; basically, a single hub that allows users to automatically share messages. With alert and notification systems, RSS can integrate with digital signage, and even send emergency alerts directly to a community’s mobile app (e.g., a school). By compiling the latest updates from different sources or sites, members of a community can quickly view the most recent—and therefore most pertinent—information during an emergency or crisis.
We know that Americans spend a significant number of hours on phones and tablets; we also know that more than half of that screen time is spent browsing social media or chatting through messaging apps. And yet, social media is one of the most overlooked endpoints in emergency preparedness. Facebook pages and Twitter can be a powerful way of keeping a community in the loop when connection is needed most.
It is also the way to keep the public calm and informed, if necessary. When emergencies transpire, it is not uncommon for people to take to social media and convey inaccurate information. This is especially an issue when there is a lack of knowledge about a known crisis. People will take it upon themselves to fill that void, and it becomes all too easy for misinformation to spread like wildfire.
That is one reason why an organization might consider social media as part of their alert and notification system. Another is that it is simply a fast and efficient way of keeping the community informed. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are easily accessible, and the live updates can go both ways, enabling members of the emergency response team to potentially tap into the community for information or insight.
Visual systems can be important components of alert and notification systems. LED ticker displays and even clocks can be altered to display an emergency notification. This is particularly helpful in loud, public venues where private communication devices are not necessarily accessible.
In places like malls, food courts, train stations, and so forth, auditory systems are not always audible. LED and other digital signage is considered “always on” technology—that is to say, unlike phones, they never run the risk of being turned off or out of power. In fact, LED runs on minimal electricity and so can continue to function for a significant amount of time even if a power outage has occurred.
Other digital signage includes LCD and plasma televisions, as well as monitors. Nowadays these are commonplace in commercial spaces and institutions and are often used to display promotions, current events, or weather information. IP-based televisions are another consideration, as they are popular educational facilities and residential communities. These technologies can easily double as a third-party integration and become part of an emergency notification system. This can be done via CAP integration, RSS, or other methods.
Wall-mounted alert beacons combine visual and auditory alerts and are a common third-party integration. These audiovisual systems flash brightly and sound an alarm in order to capture the attention of occupants. These are yet another possible avenue for communication, especially when strategically positioned in high-traffic areas. Alert beacons are particularly useful where cell phone coverage is limited, or the use of mobile devices is prohibited.
It is important to have some visual systems in place, notably if a community might include those who are deaf or hard of hearing. TTYs (a teletypewriter), also called TDDs (telecommunications device for the deaf) can also be integrated into alert and notification systems. Visual systems as a whole are ideal for conveying floorplans or warning people as to what areas of a map should be avoided. They can potentially display the location of an active shooter or a fire, facilitating a more rapid response by first responders.
Fire alarms are one of the most ubiquitous auditory systems available to facilities and can be retrofitted to enable a variety of alarms beyond fire warnings. They can easily be directly integrated with high-quality alert and notification systems.
Public address systems and intercoms are vital components of an emergency response, as well as two of the most commonly integrated third-party systems. A PA system, in combination with some visual systems, comply with ADA requirements for equal access to communications. Giant voice systems can broadcast alerts over vast distances with a minimal number of speakers and are an excellent choice for manufacturing plants and military bases.
Each of these can be highly effective components of emergency response, but the best alert and notification systems will incorporate multiple layers of communication. A combination of endpoints is needed, both personal and mass, in order to maximize a community’s safety, minimize damage to assets, and ensure that operations continue to run as smoothly as possible.
Alerts themselves should be clear and concise, no matter how they are delivered. Whether recipients see the information on a phone, tablet, laptop, sign, or TV, or hear it over an auditory system, it is critical that alerts are detailed yet short. They ought to stress urgency without inciting panic. The key to a successful system is that it goes beyond just notification; it optimizes communication.
Emergency response administrators should also consider the subgroups within a community and potentially customize messages depending on roles. For instance, what is sent to employees might be different than what is sent to students than what is sent to HR. Thinking through these distinctions early on can save precious seconds when seconds matter most.
And finally, a range of endpoints should be utilized, both personal and mass. Effective alert and notification systems should be able to transmit messages seamlessly and simultaneously through multiple modalities. Omnilert can instantly send alerts to subscribers via:
Mobile phones (text message)
Traditional wired phones (voice message)
iPads & tablets
Personal email accounts
Personalized portals (MyYahoo, Google or AOL page)
CAP (Common Alerting Protocol) devices
Digital signage systems
TVs and monitors
L.E.D. ticker displays & locks
Loudspeakers & giant voice systems
Public address systems (PA systems)
In late 2003, Omnilert founders read an article about a tragic campus accident and decided to take action. Their idea was simple. No one should die because of a lack of timely information. So, their mission became clear: keep people safe and informed during emergency situations. In 2004, Omnilert introduced the world’s very first emergency notification system for campuses—e2Campus. While the products have evolved to be better and even more automated, the mission, the passion, and the compassion have remained the same.
Omnilert is ideal for organizations responsible for the wellbeing of citizens, employees, students, athletes, parents, volunteers, partners, first responders, and others. It can be life-saving, or merely time-saving, depending on how an institution chooses to implement it:
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Omnilert serves multiple industries, empowering thousands who in turn protect millions. We do more than provide mass notification systems. We provide software that engineers human error out of emergency crises in order to create the best possible outcomes. Driven to keep people safe and connected, we also offer a Success Program. This specially designed training is part of a complete solution that trains teams in emergency preparedness. Both the Omnilert technology and the Omnilert Success Program are customized to a facility’s unique needs. The result is seamless implementation that has saved lives.
When it comes to critical communications, here are just a few of the names that trust Omnilert:
Omnilert is the creator of the world’s first campus emergency notification system. Now, we provide our services to all industries in an effort to keep people safe and connected. Pair our flagship technology with our Success Program and you are fully prepared for emergency response. A combination of committed support, personalized service, and expert training equips personnel for optimal performance. We help you take your emergency notification and response plan and bring it to life. We make sure each alert is being sent to the correct group as well as being sent to the correct end points. We help you comply with best practices and regulations to improve workplace safety.
When successful, teams can secure properties and save lives. At Omnilert, we understand the gravity of these responsibilities and make it our duty to understand your challenges and support you through your most difficult moments.