Choosing the Right Notification System

By Kathy Veldboom

Are you confident that the right people in your organization can be contacted to respond to any number of possible scenarios? Can you do it quickly and reliably, every time? Software solutions that automate the notification process are now powerful and reliable enough to implement and manage the notification process enterprise-wide. The choices are many, however, and deciding which one to buy can be a daunting task.

The best systems are flexible and template-driven, allowing administrators to pre-plan the notification process including “calling trees” for any number of scenarios such as national emergencies, code events, hazardous material spills, staffing shortages, natural disasters, and fires. They also allow users to communicate “everyday” notices such as public announcements and meeting notices.

Critical Procedures: Critical events require critical notification and response assessment procedures including:

  • Notifying the right people quickly and accurately.
  • Providing the right information.
  • Executing in an effective and timely manner.
  • Obtaining information from the respondents.
  • Escalating to additional respondents if needed.

The entire notification process must be managed, monitored, and tracked.

Features of an automated system: When looking at various emergency notification software packages, be sure that the system is scalable, standards-based, and highly configurable to meet your evolving needs. A robust notification system should be capable of integrating to virtually all phone switches and paging systems and support a multitude of protocols, devices, and rules. Other key factors to consider:

  • Notification Process Definition – Does the system enable you to build templates that spell out the various people and groups who should be notified when a critical event happens or an alarm is triggered? What tools are available to quickly and accurately notify the right people? Are your institution’s “best practices” codified in the standard procedures?
  • Message Delivery – What’s the best way to contact each person on the list? Alphanumeric pager? Cell phone? PDA? Can the system send messages to any and all of these devices? What if some recipients have asked a colleague to cover for them—can the notification system adapt and send the notification to the covering person?
  • Response Collection – The notification is out; now people are calling in for further instructions. Can the system take the calls and tabulate the responses? Can respondents use means other than the phone to respond, such as two-way pager, PDA, or web? Can the system cancel the notification if enough responses are received?
  • Escalation – If a recipient doesn’t answer a page, can the system automatically call the recipient’s cell phone? If a group has been notified, but not enough responses have been received, does the system “know” whom to notify next?
  • Monitoring – You’ve sent a notification. Now you want to know how many messages have been sent, how many responses received, and what the responses were. What tools are available to monitor these processes?
  • Alarms Integration – Can the system be set up to monitor your alarms and automatically notify critical personnel when the alarms are triggered?

Premise Systems or Hosted Services? Most notification providers offer a hosted model, providing a web-based notification package requiring no special equipment at the customer site (other than standard computers and browsers) and charging fees based on usage.

For organizations whose notification needs are mission-critical and complex, a dedicated premise system might be a better solution. Premise systems reside at the customer site and are completely “owned” by the customer, providing the utmost in flexibility and control. They are ideal for users who have everyday notification requirements in addition to emergency planning needs. Some organizations will want a “blended” package incorporating both a premise system and a hosted service. Ask your system provider if a blended solution is available.

System data: The notification data – recipient names, contact devices and numbers, and more – is key to the functioning of the system. Be sure to evaluate the robustness of the database underlying your vendor’s notification system.  A market-proven relational database such as Oracle or Microsoft SQL will ensure optimum reliability and programmability, while “flat” databases will limit a system’s ability to handle complex procedures, locate people on the move, and process incoming responses.

System protection: What if an emergency event disables portions of your on-site notification system? Your system vendor should provide resiliency options such as an off-site standby server. In the event that the actual emergency event disables portions of the system, traffic would be re-directed to the standby. Additionally, an offsite hosted notification service can serve as a backup for premise-based notification systems.

Provisioning the system for major events: Your system provider should lead you through provisioning to ensure that your notification system is properly sized. Also ask about options to ensure system availability such as specifying a fault tolerant hosting infrastructure, hosted service backup, and working with your organization’s disaster recovery experts to determine how the system will be protected during an event.

Not Just for Emergencies: FEMA defines an emergency as “any unplanned event that can cause death or significant injuries to employees, customers, or the public; or that can shut down your business, disrupt operations, cause physical or environmental damage, or threaten the facility’s financial standing or public image.” However, notification and response systems can also have a time and budget-saving role in everyday communications along with training, testing, and measuring communication plans for critical events. Some systems include components such as on-call scheduling and group messaging. Routine uses of these systems, such as calling responders to see if they’re available for duty or notifying staff of a meeting, can be key factors in justifying purchase of the software.

Kathy Veldboom is Chief Operating Officer of Amcom Software. She has held prior positions as a trainer, installation technician, and systems analyst. She can be reached at 800-852-8935.

[From the April/May 2005 issue of AnswerStat magazine]