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Marc BurdissJun 21, 2017 3:31:56 PM9 min read

Exercising your mass notification system

When was the last time you exercised your mass notification system? Six months ago? A year? If you are like most, you can point to the day and time, and maybe even produce a brief After Action Report (AAR) from the event and confidently check that box completed. That’s great, but probably not enough, and you are probably not using all the exercise approaches you should be trying. Let me explain...

I have yet to have an emergency make an appointment on my calendar. Sure, we have pre-planned outages of services and utilities, but by the fact they are pre-planned, they are not an emergency. I’m talking about the phone rings, facial expression changes, it’s time to go to work, emergencies. Real emergencies don’t call in advance, and they rarely happen at a convenient time. Have you tested your system for those? 

Somewhere during my tenure of my emergency management career, I became an exercise focused emergency manager (EM), not a mitigation, nor a planning focused EM, but the type of EM that plans, trains, and improves through the use of exercises all along the complexity spectrum. 

Based on my exercising experience, let me explain five ways you can continually test your system (in no particular order) so that you are ready:

1. Exercise your system outside of normal office hours

This sounds simple, but a few things you will learn. The normal initiators of the alerts might not be working at that time. It will likely be harder to get the permission to launch if needed by policy. Or, (this one is important) if you test it on the overnight time frame, important stakeholders may be using the Do Not Disturb feature on their phone and won't hear any attempts to call them into work, or notify them of a situation.

Also, if you have social media linked to your alert system, you might find traffic is higher during the off hours, and your public affairs team may receive a higher workload.

2. Exercise from all locations and devices

When was the last time you initiated an alert from your phone, apple watch, tablet, home PC, etc.? Try it next time from a new computer or device and I guarantee you will learn something new about how each launch mode is different. You may also discover you were using the browser to remember your password, and you have to take time to look it up, reset it, or worse case scenario not be able to send an alert.  

Have the cell phone companies updated a tower recently? Probably. Do you get reliable service in all the areas you frequent? Find out. As Dirty Harry once said “ A man's got to know his limitations”. Find yours.

3. Use your system as much as you can

This one is a game changer although not necessarily an “exercise”. When you start having staff use the system for more routine alerting tasks their familiarity goes up, their fear goes down, and a lot of problems can be discovered and resolved prior to a life safety event. 

We use the alert system to remind private groups of recurring meetings, notifications about exercises, planned outages on campus, as well as page out alerts for key staff to check their emails for an important message. The routine use of the system allows us to lower the anxiety on those sending the messages by increasing their familiarity with the system; what boxes to check, uncheck, how to access a template, and even review the delivery rate to ensure the message was received. Have there been some mistakes, wrong boxes checked, errant Tweets, etc.? Yes, but the increased speed of sending a message as well as the expanded familiarity of the system and its tools are worth it.

4. Combine system testing with other exercises

Every October we test all of our notification systems during the Great (Your State Here) Shakeout earthquake drill. We test our dispatchers and public affairs ability to send all methods at once; the alert system is only a fractional part. We have tested alert systems during full scale exercises to target specific groups and locations. If there is an exercise occurring, I will find some way to practice a component of the mass notification system. During a hazardous materials tabletop exercise we noted that, although we had many templates, we did not have one for a hazardous materials event. We do now. 

5. Exercise the system with a stop watch

Emergency alerts are important and every second counts. Drive this point home in a few ways. Find those who are able to initiate an alert and occasionally drop in on them and say “This is an exercise - the scenario is (insert details that relate to a template or not) and notify XYZ private group. Go”. You can do this in a meeting, during the evening via a phone call, during another event, etc. The point is to get everyone attuned to the fact that this is how emergencies work. To train otherwise, is planning to fail.  

Exercising, and preparing to exercise your system, allows time to improve the use of the mass notification system on a continual basis. 

Three improvement items you can implement today are:

1. Detailed review of the system

People come and people go. Have you updated your private groups to include new hires? Have you removed those who have left employment? Set a recurring date on the calendar to review who can authorize alerts to what groups, who are in those groups, and assess if new groups are needed.

Also, do a quick review of the templates based on recent events or national news. If you do this quarterly, or even twice a year, you will find changes that need to be made. 

2. Add key stakeholders

Do your local fire and police chiefs need to be on your system? peers from adjoining jurisdictions? counterparts at nearby institutions? I would say yes, but that is for you to decide. Call them up, or talk to them at your next meeting. It has been my experience that very few of us in the public safety or public information world want less information, in a less timely manner. Add key stakeholders to your system.

3. Create a “how-to” sheet for your system

Imagine you are at a conference, and the other regular message initiators are on vacation, or otherwise unavailable. Can an alert still be issued? I would hope so, but what steps have you taken that would allow someone, appropriately delegated, to send a message in your absence? 

In a trusted location, like a dispatch center, one could easily write down the instructions (like a how-to sheet) and place it into a binder with other similar sheets. However, sometimes this is not possible. One solution I have seen is to place the how-to sheet with login information and the policy or plan for the system’s use into an envelope, sealing it, and letting others know in your absence to open the envelope and launch an alert. Super low-tech, yes, but should work for 95% of the situations out there. Upon your return, retrieve the still sealed envelope for use next time. Better yet, train more trusted people to use the system. Seconds count when lives are at risk.


Marc Burdiss CEM, MEP, M.Ed has over 15 years experience in Emergency Management & Exercise Design. He is Director of the Northern Arizona University Office of Emergency Management and President of Preparedness Solutions, Inc, a company that specializes in disaster exercises and emergency management consulting.


Marc Burdiss

Marc Burdiss