Sounding the alarm

RFP Essentials | Emergency notification systems can alert the right people, no matter where they are, in a variety of formats<@VM>RFP checklist | Emergency notification systems<@VM>Emergency Notification System products

The tragic shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in April was only the most recent, but perhaps most poignant, proof of the need to communicate emergency alerts and instructions to thousands of people simultaneously. In the aftermath, government agencies have been taking a hard look at emergency notification systems that automate the process.

Mass notification and alerting has other critical uses. The Air Force Reserve Command, for example, will use AtHoc's IWSAlerts to recall, within four hours, 30,000 reserve personnel when orders come down, using automated, text-to-speech voice mail. It replaces a phone-tree system that is a manual process, said Col. John Hayes, the command's chief information officer. 'The system we ended up buying has up to 10 ways to contact people.'

Other government and vendor sources say many agencies still use phone trees to alert first responders. The quaint method simply asks each person to phone the next one on the list. The reality is messy, though, with participants not knowing what to do if someone doesn't respond, and the tree can turn into low-tech spaghetti code. 'It's very inefficient,' said Lynn Churchill, chief technology officer at Invizeon, maker of CHAIN. The e-mail lists some agencies use are not much better, he said.

Churchill said a good emergency notification system has four major elements:

  • The ability to track recipients and the devices where they can be reached.
  • Permissions and rights management to specify who has authority to create and broadcast alerts.
  • Business rules to guide decisions about which device to try after the first one fails and can help manage preconfigured responses.
  • Nuts-and-bolts technology to ensure connections to most of the devices that need to be reached.

List management is thus a key feature. Many vendors support Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) and Active Directory. All the products I found typically default to self-service profile creation and updating, though most also allow administrators the option of doing it. Vendors say user profiles are a critical tool that must be updated regularly to reflect popular trends, such as the recent move among college students away from separate e-mail clients to e-mail delivered through the popular social-networking site Facebook, said Gerald Baron, president and founder of PIER System. 'You really have to keep up with it ' you can't make assumptions,' Baron said.

Having the right people in the room during the pre-installation design and planning process can avoid surprises, said Don Rondeau, vice president of homeland security at Alion Science and Technology, maker of the Response Information Folder System (RIFS), an alert system with 3-D images of buildings and terrain. Alion participates in the Virginia Safe Schools program and recently implemented RIFS at Hampton University. 'Alion won't do it without having an academic person there who can say if kids bring their cell phones to class,' Rondeau said.

'You have to be prepared to be unprepared,' said Roy Stephan, director of cybersecurity at Intelligent Decisions, an Invizeon partner. That unpleasant reality argues for a solution that is flexible, Stephan said.

The systems' greatest value comes from automating tasks normally handled, often imperfectly, by people. The benefit is significantly faster and more reliable communication. That was the experience of the Montana Department of Corrections when it implemented CHAIN last year. Invizeon wrote templates for alerts covering 30 common scenarios, a number that now exceeds 100.

Under the old system, officials at the state prison would call down a phone tree. Bill Slaughter, the department's former director who now works at Aquila-Vision, knew many people carried personal digital assistants, but the department had no way to reach them. CHAIN makes sure they get the message. 'It's relentless,' he said. 'If you've got a beeper, it's going to just buzz off your hip. It can hit any of the devices law enforcement has.'

Typical features

Alert systems' primary medium is the text message, which goes not only to PCs and PDAs, but also to many cell phones, pagers, fax machines and short message service (SMS) devices. Some use text-to-speech software to convert alerts typed on a PC ' or from the text-enabled mobile device of an authorized sender ' to a computerized voice that reads the message to a phone or through a public-address system. Audio recordings can also be directed to devices with sound. But only a handful of vendors, including Invizeon and Twisted Pair Solutions, a vendor of interoperability software, can communicate with land mobile radio, the main tool of local responders.

Churchill said the text-based channels are critical to alerting what he calls 'secondary responders' ' health departments and local emergency management officials who typically don't carry radios.

The field's one real standard is the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), which defines a standard message format so disparate systems can talk to one another and the Federal Emergency Alert System while creating a common database of events that can be analyzed for suspicious activity. Churchill terms it a true standard that meets Homeland Security Department requirements.

The emerging frontier seems to be in generating alerts from monitoring devices, such as temperature sensors at nuclear plants, tsunami detectors, stress sensors on dams and door alarms at other high-value facilities. 'More and more of the nation's critical infrastructure is embedded with sensors of every type,' said David Todd, Invizeon's president and chief marketing officer.

For a successful implementation, Hayes cautioned against underestimating the amount of database work involved in managing user profiles, saying his information technology staff spent most of their time on it, despite hopes of saving time by importing from existing personnel and Active Directory databases. He recommends systems that can accept automated database feeds and allow remote updating over the Web. He also wonders if he should have allowed staff at each facility to install IWSAlerts instead of centralizing the process. 'We usually have to pick up the phone and work base by base to have their network operations centers open the right ports in their firewall,' Hayes said.

Baron strongly advised not ignoring the public-information component that follows an initial alert. 'What's going to happen next?' he said. 'You've just created a huge demand for information. People have a high expectation of interactivity ' they feel they should be able to ask a question and get an answer.'

In 2003, DHS mandated as much when it called for an incident-management system that relies on joint information centers to unify communications from multiple responding agencies. 'The problem is, by the time you've set up a JIC, you're 24 hours into the event,' Baron said. 'How long does it take the news helicopters to fly overhead? That's when the story has to start to be told.' So he advocates virtual JICs that let agencies collaborate electronically from their offices without losing time setting up a single physical site.

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.
Selecting the best emergency notification system for your organization requires assessment of your infrastructure, security requirements and auditing needs. Here are some important questions you'll want to answer before investing in a specific solution.
  • Ask for a service-level agreement (SLA), but don't expect one for guaranteed delivery times to recipients: For that leg of the journey, vendors are dependent on telecom carriers. They can, however, guarantee how quickly your messages will get from their servers to the carriers.
  • Look for adherence to the CAP standard and others, such as Web services standards and an open application programming interface, that ensure interoperability among vendors' products. Ideally, one system should be able to send alerts to others.
  • Describe your agency's continuity-of-operations requirements and ask how the system will support it.
  • Take careful note of whether the desktop administrator and recipient software runs 100 percent in a standard Web browser. Requiring users to download software can slow installation and increase support costs.
  • Beware billing policies that can saddle you with unnecessary expenses. Think carefully about who really needs to use the system, at what level of the hierarchy and when. Then look for a pricing model that most closely matches actual use.
  • Be sure a system's acknowledgement mechanism meets your security needs. Personal identification number entry is one way to ensure the respondent is the intended recipient and not someone else who took the message.
  • Request examples of alerts and templates to see if they use terminology appropriate to your responder community. Some systems use law enforcement templates that might need modification.

Vendor Product Type
3n (National Notification Network)

(888) 366-4911
3n Hosted or on-site mass-notification system
Alion Science and Technology

(877) 771-6252
RIFS Incident-response management software

(650) 685-3000
IWSAlerts Hosted or on-site alerting/mass-notification system
Dialogic Communications

(800) 723-3207
The Communicator
Hosted or on-site telephone alerting/
mass-notification system

(773) 955-4999
Rapid Reach
Hosted or on-site alerting service

(406) 543-4059
CHAIN Hosted alerting/mass-notification service

(800) 936-3525
Amerilert Hosted alerting/mass-notification service
PIER System

(360) 756-8080
Public Information and
Emergency Response System
Multiple-purpose Web-based platform

(800) 247-2363
REVERSE 911 On-site telephone alerts/notifications
Roam Secure

(877) 459-7726
Roam Secure Alert
Alert network
Streem Communications

(800) 325-7732
Streem Alert On-site alerting/notification system

Twisted Pair Solutions

(206) 442-2101
IP-based communications interoperability software


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