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Author: Mike Scott

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

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Emergency Notification Systems: Public Safety’s Regional Intercom

By Mike Scott

Originally published in our April, 2008 issue.

Emergency notification systems are more relevant in the 9-1-1 world than ever before. These systems have the ability to communicate a wide range of law enforcement personnel in multiple ways.

Quick and reliable communication capabilities are essential to dramatically improving operational effectiveness and safety during an emergency. With the ability to quickly and easily share information and resources in critical situations, first responders and emergency communication teams can effectively respond to disasters and coordinate efforts, saving lives and property.

An increase in weather-related disasters, along with tragic events such as the recent shooting rampage at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, has spurred interest in emergency alerting and domain awareness technology in the academic, public and private sectors, according to industry experts.

Law enforcement and governmental agencies at the federal and state levels are deploying emergency notification systems that can send alerts to a wide range of communications devices, including desktop computers, cell phones, and personal digital assistants. They also send alerts to large communities of people, from first responders to employees and the community at large. The latter, in fact, has become the largest boom in notification products, with at least a dozen vendors providing emergency telephone notification systems geared to alert the public of local and regional emergency situations.

Notification Standards

There are a number of reasons that the University of Pennsylvania’s Public Safety Department decided to purchase an emergency notification system from MIR3 last fall, said Mitch Yanak, director of the PennComm Center at the university. Some of the critical elements of such a purchase included a vendor that hosts redundant sites, a system that was SAS 70 compliant, and the flexibility of the vendor and solution itself.

The importance of Statement on Auditing Standards (SAS 70) compliance is based on rules and regulations that are designed to protect the personal identity of students’ data and university personnel. It helps to ensure the integrity of the database Yanak said. SAS 70 is an internationally recognized auditing standard developed by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). A SAS 70 audit is widely recognized because it represents that a service or outsourcing organization has been through an in-depth audit of their control activities, which generally include controls over information technology and related processes.

Yet these systems represent much more than a traditional alert messaging approach said Don L. Rondeau, vice president of Homeland Security for Alion Science and Technology, an employee-owned solutions technology company in McLean (VA). The platforms of such emergency notification systems certainly support information exchange that support this messaging but it also integrates technology, practices and policies to support a first responder’s approach and needs.

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Focusing on Operations

While traditional alert messaging refers to the notification of law enforcement personnel and dispatchers, the evolution of these systems is much more. Namely it refers to the inclusion of information about a situation before law enforcement personnel arrive at a scene.

“What these systems should be used as is a way to help plan and collaborate a response effort in the moments after an emergency is triggered,” Rondeau said. “Before those responders reach the scene, a dispatcher can pull up a graphic representation or model about a certain location’s infrastructure (such as a public school) that can ascertain next steps in real time.

“It should support the broadcast and notification of a message to multiple communities,” Rondeau added.

For that to happen, law enforcement agencies in general and 9-1-1 communication centers in particular need to have an operational focus, Rondeau said. He has noticed that in the past couple of years, the emphasis of law enforcement customers has been less on the technology itself and more on the conditions and circumstances that they want to be prepared for. The need for fail-safe, redundant systems and policy development to accurately support such systems is taking precedence.

Consolidating money and time to use such an emergency notification system is one strategy that some agencies are taking about.

Lincoln City Police Department in Oregon installed PlantCML’s Reverse 9-1-1{r} solution last fall. The reason for acquiring this emergency response system was to enhance the city’s tsunami readiness, while giving it the ability to warn citizens in a variety of situations. The system can automatically telephone residents throughout the city or in selected areas, playing a recorded message to advise citizens of anything from a catastrophic event to a hazardous materials spill to an alert for a missing person.

A number of California cities and counties utilized these types of notification systems during the widespread wildfires that were ongoing last fall. Residents were advised when certain areas were being evacuated, and it was reported afterward that systems such as Reverse 9-1-1{r} were quite effective.

Ideally not just the Lincoln City Police Department but the Lincoln County Communications Agency (LinCom) would implement this type of emergency notification system at the Newport-based center, which dispatches police, fire, and emergency medical services for much of the county.

“It’s time to have it here,” LinCom Director Richard Glasgow said of this system in a December 2007 article published in the Newport News-Times newspaper. “If we wait, we’re going to be in here talking about why we didn’t do this. Preparation equals luck.”

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Notification and Disaster Preparation

The desire for that increased preparation is also a major reason that more agencies not only want such a comprehensive emergency notification system but are equipped to use it as an effective tool said Michael J. Sher, chief strategy officer and co-founder of New York City-based Send Word Now which develops a variety of such systems for multiple agencies.

Communication centers and law enforcement agencies in general are becoming more proactive than reactive and the integration of alerting capabilities into the roles of all law enforcement and dispatcher personnel continues to increase, Sher said.

The majority of high-end, comprehensive emergency notification systems can contact people in a broad area or in a very select neighborhood based upon the potential emergency. A dispatcher can use the computer’s mouse to draw across a map to manage when and to whom emergency notifications will go out.

“If there was an emergency involving something like a hazardous spill, weather conditions (such as wind speed and direction) can be plugged into the program, and the system will automatically contact people that could be affected by the plume,” Glasgow said.

In Lincoln County, the potential for flooding around the nearby Siletz River is another example of when such a system should be used, said Jim Hawley, emergency services manager for the county. He admits that the implementation of an emergency notification system is frequently discussed. One concern though is that calls are sometimes routed outside of the immediate area with such a system, which could hamper the timely benefits.

“We want to make sure that what we would get has the capability and the capacity to be used locally without going someplace else before it gets back to us,” Hawley said.

Glasgow said, “It’s my understanding that we can make all the calls right here, from within the county. If we want to exceed the abilities of the system, which is like 600 calls in six minutes, I’ve a actually got a verbal agreement with Tillamook’s 9-1-1 director that we could use their system ... if, say, we needed to notify several thousand within a moment’s time.”

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A Worthwhile Expense for Public Safety

One of the ways that agencies are justifying such purchases is to assure their personnel that using such a system won’t be an overwhelming and time-consuming process. This is especially true as vendors offer communication centers various tool to increase or decrease the frequency of alerts as needed, Sher said.

“There are certain times when an individual does not want to be alerted and it is important to not only give them that option but to allow them to manage their alerts through an easy (often Windows-based) process,” said Sher. “We have the flexibility within our tool that allows an organization and anyone with access to decide which alerts should and should not be exposed.”

Giving customers more control over those alerting features is a critical element that will allow PSAPs to best use such a comprehensive tool said Sher. “We want to reduce the noise so it’s not a complex process but one where selecting (alert criteria) is as seamless as possible.”

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Notification on Campus

One measure of the increased sophistication of such systems is that it assists law enforcement personnel in early decision making, Rondeau pointed out. But law enforcement and PSAPs alone can’t prevent an emergency from occurring and prevention is a consideration he added.

That is why Alion and other vendors are finding a market in other industries for emergency notification systems that have traditionally appealed to law enforcement clients only. Schools and hospitals for example need to have a vehicle to communicate with – and to – such agencies.

“Law enforcement agencies aren’t in a position to prevent a situation alone so we need to be able to empower those individuals, businesses, schools, and more that can communicate with first responders and give them the tools to be a part (of the communications) process,” Rondeau said. “Just like with all law enforcement technology we need to empower our customers to respond and make decisions faster.”

Customers do generally require some level of customization with their emergency notification systems. At the University of Pennsylvania, they desired an additional field added to their database that contains an additional emergency contact for each student. Frequently updated databases are also necessary given the personnel turnover throughout the emergency, Yanak said.

“We have uploaded completed (database) changes every two hours,” Yanak added. “That is very impressive and very critical for processes.”

This updated information is also necessary because in wake of the 2007 tragedy at Virginia Tech, all universities recognize they have the obligation to notify parents and significant others of students in case of an emergency within a short period of time he said.

The MIR3 system also allows the university to notify the entire campus community of an emergency simultaneously when necessary. However in the case of a building fire or other emergency, the university’s communication center can also notify small segments of the campus population that could be affected by such a situation.

“More students are getting away from using landlines in any capacity so in a high-profile emergency we must be able to send a unified emergency alert or in specific regions of the university,” said Maureen Rush, vice president for public safety for the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s critical to have centralized and decentralized notifications in a variety of emergencies like a shooter situation.”

The University of Pennsylvania has also teamed up with other partners in the area such as Drexel University, a couple of hospitals, and some other organizations to inform each other of an emergency on the same system Yanak said. The office of emergency management system has developed a process by which these other institutions and area law enforcement personnel are automatically notified as well.

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Testing the System

But perhaps the most critical way or customers to ensure their emergency notification system works is to test it early and often Yanak said. After the system was installed at the university in August 2007, he initiated at least four sets of tests daily, and those tests continued months after the initial installations.

“Too often a PSAP or end user won’t test their system and instead will wait for an emergency to see how it works,” Yanak said. “It’s important to remember that any [software] system is going to have some bugs that could be a part of an installation. The key is to find out about such issues before an emergency and to be sure to select a vendor that is willing to work with you and adapt to changes that you require.”

Other typical needs of emergency notification systems are that it can work well with cell phone and SMS calls. It should also work for hearing impaired callers and with fax machines and pagers, Yanak said.

Finally a vendor that is established and stable should always be considered over lesser-known companies, many of which have popped up since the Virginia Tech shootings last spring, Yanak said. The better systems offer two-way text messaging by voice mail and SMS text messaging and email, for example.

“In our case we need to reach 52,000 individuals around our campus in less than 10 minutes if an emergency arises,” Yanak said.

The RapidReach emergency notification system produced by Enera Inc. in Chicago allows users to activate, track, test, and stay current with emergency situations. Activation is possible when emergency call outs are used via the telephone or PC. One message is used for all devices from text to speech.

RapidReach then tracks recipients at alternate numbers with information made available to backup personnel. All recipients can reply via phone, SMS, or email. All call attempts and responses can be monitored in real time online, via email, or by faxed reports.

MIR3 Intelligent Notification systems can enhance the communications internally or externally providing real-time two way communication over a multitude of modalities. Commercial and governmental enterprises rely on the extensive infrastructure of MIR3 to ensure their global communications.

Additionally, the systems have the ability to grow as the requirements and size of the organization change.

Mike Scott is a freelance writer for several national and local magazines and newspapers. He lives in White Lake, Michigan and can be reached at Mas1774@yahoo.com

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