Emergency Communications

“Who ya gonna call?” is a well-known line from a popular 80’s movie about hunting for ghosts in New York City, but if that movie were re-made today it would be more appropriate to ask the question, “HOW’re ya gonna call?”

The first inbound toll-free phone numbers were introduced in the late-1960’s and that technology dramatically changed the way that businesses focused on the importance of communications with their customers. As the technology evolved so did the businesses’ dependence upon instantaneous communications as an integral part of their need to remain in direct contact with their customers and staff.

During a time of emergency it is easy to focus on dealing with the incident and to overlook communications with the rest of the staff, the senior management, and the outside world. It is also common to presume that the normal channels for communication (land line telephones, wireless phones, and Email) will be up and running. Sadly most of the breakdowns in business continuity plans are the direct result of communications failures.

In the early days of emergency management, telephone call trees were considered to be the mainstay of communications plans. However the call tree system has several basic flaws:

  • Assumption that all individuals will be contacted in a timely fashion
  • Assumption that all individuals will have access to a working telephone
  • Assumption that contact phone numbers are current and correct
  • Assumption that all individuals will receive exactly the same message

Thanks to advances in technology, the classic call tree is now being replaced by more sophisticated and reliable auto-notification applications. These new forms of communication employ a “one-to-many” contact system which allows a single user to simultaneously broadcast the same message to all members of a pre-specified list of recipients using multiple forms of communication. A voice message can be sent to an individual’s office phone, cell phone, home phone, as well as a text message sent to their cellphone and multiple Email accounts. Many of these new systems can also register successful receipt of the message as well as a short response from the recipient.

The past several years have brought disasters of every type and size to all corners of the country including major hurricanes in the Gulf coast region, severe winter storms in the Northeast, sweltering heatwaves throughout the Deep South, tornados and flash flooding in the Midwest, massive wildfires and seismic activity on the West Coast, as well as a host of man-made disasters including cyber-attacks, power outages, structural fires, supply chain disruptions, and workplace violence. Each incident has reminded our clients to ask questions about the resiliency of their communications networks and crisis response options.

Effective disaster readiness plans need to be evaluated and tested before an actual emergency situation. One of the most important elements within that plan is a company’s ability to communicate with their disaster management team, their employees, their customers, their stakeholders, their business partners, and the media during, and immediately following, a time of crisis.

How will you run your business if your phone system is inoperable because of a power disruption or a fire within your facility? Or perhaps something on a larger scale results in ‘network busy’ signals instead of connected phone calls? Or even a major regional event knocks out the entire telecommunications infrastructure? What alternatives do you have in place, and have they been tested for effectiveness?

When considering communications alternatives, today’s businesses have numerous emergency communications options available to them with a full range of capabilities and a wide variety of price points. The following list will detail some of those choices:

Live-Operator Call Handling Service: Many businesses use a live-operator service to handle after-hours and overflow telephone calls during the normal business day. This same service could be easily adapted to handle calls during an emergency and provide a business with centralized message collection, out-calling of messages to cellphones or an alternate worksite, and a means for your employees to call in and leave information as to their whereabouts and their personal situations. Many of these services will allow text messaging to cellphones in the event that cellular traffic is disrupted, and some offer a web interface to retrieve messages and update call handling procedures.

Pre-recorded Hotlines: A seldom-used phone number (preferably toll-free) could be configured through your phone carrier to play a recorded announcement – generally made by a senior company official to give status updates on your physical facility and overall business operations. Many times, companies will have an “internal” hotline for their employees and a second “external” hotline for customers and vendors. These recorded announcements should not reside within your premise phone system, but rather be hosted through your network provider. The communications officer within your company can update the information on these announcements several times a day, as needed.

Call Redirection Services: Another popular option for voice communications is to redirect the inbound calls within your phone carrier’s network (“the cloud”) and then use a call redirection service to forward the phone calls to pre-determined locations and numbers. This technique guarantees that the inbound calls will reach a live representative from your company or be directed into a voice mailbox for later callback. These services are very effective so long as the business configures the options well-prior to the emergency situation.

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP): As the technology improves, more companies are moving away from traditional facilities-based PBX systems with hard-wire connections to telephone desksets. Instead they are utilizing IP-based phone systems which direct the voice call to a physical IP address which can be configured to ring to an alternate deskset, a cellphone, or even a remote call center. The entire IP phone switch can be housed off-site within a data hosting and storage facility, thus removing the vulnerability of a traditional on-site PBX phone system.

Smart Phones: The ubiquitous nature of Apple, Android, Blackberry, and other such multi-function devices offers one more alternative for making and receiving voice calls, text messaging, and accessing Email, business applications, and social media sites. Once again, this configuration is heavily dependent upon signal availability, remote server access and battery power for the portable devices.

Text Messaging Services: Most of us watch in amazement as teenagers furiously type text messages to each other on their cellphones without pausing to realize that this same technology provides a very effective means for emergency communications. Reliable text messaging notification systems have become a very popular way to send and confirm receipt of critical alerts to selected individuals, small groups, and entire organizations. The text messages are sent as short message “blasts”, and the message will reach the user even when normal cellular voice channels are congested. The popularity of the “one-to-many” text messaging service has provided a new favorite among emergency managers.

Satellite Phone Communications: By far the most reliable emergency voice communication service is portable satellite telephones, however the price point may prove impractical for most companies. The equipment is priced at several hundred dollars per handset, and the service fees can run up to $1 per minute of talk time. For larger corporations and critical emergency operations teams satellite phones are a good choice to add to your emergency communications arsenal.

Email communications: If you are able to access your Email server from a remote location, and if your employees have both power and a solid internet connection, then you can utilize Email as a way of maintaining contact with your customers and your employees. This solution will rely upon the development of pre-planning strategies for server access, remote computer facilities, and Email access. It also depends heavily upon having both power and an internet connection – whether wired or wireless. This configuration can also allow access to your users into core business applications while they work from a remote location. Larger corporations may also wish to investigate services which run a mirrored copy of your Email service on remote servers, and therefore provide guaranteed connectivity to corporate Email during a time of crisis.

Social Media: Consider the power of social media services such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. While these channels are primarily known for their entertainment value, they do provide another means of transmitting non-secure information to a closed user-group.

SharePoint:  Microsoft’s SharePoint service allows for secure on-line storage of files, and closed user-group access to that same material. This collaboration tool has become a popular venue for building and storing in-house business continuity and disaster recovery plans – and the homepage “News” updates provides an alternative means of communication with your in-house staff.

Web Communications: One additional option is the abundance of web communications channels now available. Free Email services, web logs (blogs), and simple webpage configurations will allow for the transfer of non-secure information and files during a time of crisis.

Announcement Services through Local Broadcast Media: Should you need to reach a large number of people within a certain geographic area in a timely fashion (such as school closures or major facilities shutdowns) then you might wish to consider an announcement service through the local Radio and Television stations.

Conclusions: Advances in technology are blazing the way for newer, faster, and more secure means of communication. Obviously the “best” emergency communications solution for any company would be built around a blend of alternatives, and it would be tested and refined regularly. Use the 3-step process of Plan, Respond, and Recover to cope with business disruptions, and make sure that you pre-plan your emergency communications strategy before you need to depend upon its success.

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