There were a pair of incidents last week where schools sent erroneous messages through their emergency notification system (ENS).
One was a system test that sent an inadvertent bomb threat message resulting in a locked down Colorado High School, and another had parents frantic with worry over unintentional voice calls indicating their children were missing.
Was it a design deficiency in the ENS system, a lack of proper training, or simple human error? While human error can result from a variety of influences, the underlying processes that lead to error are consistent. The trick is how we learn from them and avoid the same mistakes in the future.
How can you avoid inviting human error into your emergency communication procedures?
The first step is to use an ENS that’s simple to operate. I’m not personally familiar with the tools used in these cases, but I would guess that the person sending the message was a bit confused at the time. Keep your ENS process as simple as possible to avoid confusion and make training less of a hurdle.
Speaking of training, the next tool at your disposal is, you guessed it, training! Every new administrator trusted to send a message through your ENS needs to be trained, and then trained again. If regular training is not a part of your emergency preparedness planning, it should be.
The formula for success is fairly simple: Train -> Test -> Evaluate -> Repeat
Your ENS vendor should be at the frontline with you in training every step of the way. This training should be inclusive, consultative, thorough, and included as part of your purchase.
Additionally, one of the incidents this week was a false “bomb threat” message. This was initially planned as a test, but nowhere in the message did it actually say that it was just a test! With proper training from their vendor they would know not to use a "bomb threat" in a test. They'd send a test message that was clearly labeled as a test! (For example “This is a test. Only a test.”)
I know this seems obvious now, as hindsight is always 20/20, but I’m sure none of this was obvious to the folks sending those erroneous messages.
If you are not used to testing your ENS, and working with your ENS vendor, what seems obvious can be overlooked. When things go unnoticed in emergency management, the results can be embarrassing or, in the worst cases, disastrous.
In the end, these incidents make the customer look worse than their ENS vendor. However, the vendor is the one who needs to provide the support and training to guide the customer. Without proper training, it's not a question of if human error will happen, it's a question of when.