Another View | Keeping up with teleworkers

A cursory look at the current economic and political landscape
provides compelling evidence that today's federal workforce
faces some significant commuting challenges. Increasing road
congestion, rising gas prices and longer commutes are just some of
the hurdles federal employees must overcome to do their jobs and
maintain productivity. One strategy being touted as a quick and
effective solution to those challenges is telework.

The Office of Personnel Management has made a significant effort
to promote telework, offering assistance to agencies interested in
starting programs. According to a 2008 survey by CDW Government,
about 17 percent of federal employees telework. The number of
federal teleworkers has been steadily increasing each year.

Although telework is undoubtedly a benefit for individual
employees and agencies trying to hold onto valuable workers, it can
present serious problems when an emergency occurs.

As part of any continuity-of-operations plan, agencies must be
able to quickly alert employees about a crisis situation and
communicate relevant information so they know how to respond
appropriately. That task was challenging enough within the confines
of federal buildings, but with the new era of teleworking, the
alerting task has grown exponentially.

Agencies can no longer rely exclusively on traditional alerting
systems such as public address systems and sirens that are limited
to physical facilities. Those systems cannot reach employees off
site, and as an added liability, they cannot provide the level of
situational detail that new technologies can handle.

In the past five years, a new technology referred to as
network-centric emergency alerting has emerged that can support a
highly distributed workforce, including individuals at their homes.
The Web-based alerting system uses IP networks to send highly
intrusive pop-up alerts to desktop PCs, calls or text messages to
cellular and landline phones, and alerts to personal digital
assistants such as BlackBerry devices.

Network-centric alerting provides significant benefits over
facility-based systems, including the ability to reach people
wherever they are, send more details about the emergency, target
employees with specific instructions based on their roles and
locations, send links with additional information such as emergency
procedures or maps, and most significantly, track and confirm
individual recipients' responses to the alerts.

Network-centric alerting makes it as easy to reach employees at
remote locations as it is to reach them at a federal office
building. The system's value lies in its ability to target
employees within minutes no matter where they are. Alerts reach
multiple devices concurrently to ensure that employees receive
messages quickly. That approach makes it possible for teleworkers
to be constantly connected to emergency notifications, and if a
major disaster affects a federal office building, communications
can remain intact while most or all employees work off site.

Having redundant communication channels also provides major
benefits. Consider what happened on Sept. 11, 2001: The volume of
calls crippled phone systems. When a student went on a shooting
rampage at Virginia Tech last year, most students did not see the
university's emergency e-mail messages quickly enough to
react to the situation. With network-centric emergency alerting, as
long as the network is available, any device connected to it will
be alerted with an intrusive audiovisual message within minutes.
Telephones, sirens and other mass communication devices are
triggered simultaneously to ensure the widest possible reach. By
using redundant channels, agencies dramatically increase the odds
that alerts will reach the intended recipients, whether they are in
the office, their homes or their cars.

Effective and reliable emergency alerting removes one of the
final hurdles to mass teleworking programs. Agencies have already
begun adopting the technology. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
chose an emergency alerting system in 2007 that can reach employees
at its 11 facilities and those who are working at home and in
remote offices. The Defense Department is also using
network-centric alerting to support teleworking and accommodate the
widely distributed nature of military organizations.

The teleworking model is moving into the mainstream of federal
agencies' daily operations. And now, thanks to technology
such as network-centric emergency alerting, it is more than just
convenient ' it's safe.

Dubhe Beinhorn
is vice president of public-sector operations at AtHoc, which
offers network-centric emergency notification systems.


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