While the reality of threats like active shooter situations and natural disasters may seem far off, business continuity teams and company safety departments need to be prepared to deal with and respond to them.
The use of mass notification systems has become a necessary tool in the kitbag of IT professionals, business continuity professionals and campus safety teams.
What is a mass notification system?
The Department of Homeland Security defines mass notification systems (MNS) - sometimes called emergency notification systems or alert notification systems, this way:
"Notification systems allow for real-time dissemination of information and intelligence via equipment such as cellular phones, pagers, personal digital assistants, computers, etc. Their primary function is to quickly alert responders to potential threats or emergency situations and to provide direction on how to respond to alerts."
In practical terms, an MNS is a rapid-response system designed to quickly disseminate critical information over a wide variety of mediums to affected population. Information may include notifications that a violent event is in progress, instructions about where to go or what to do (e.g. shelter in place) as well as information about the conclusion of the event. This information can be an invaluable asset in minimizing the negative effects of a violent incident at your organization.
Key MNS Features
When choosing an MNS system for your organization there are several factors to consider:
1. Deployment Model
Two architectures dominate the MNS space. On-premise and cloud-hosted MNS provide different options depending on preference, budget, and other factors. An on-premise solution puts the MNS hardware at your location where it becomes part of the IT department's administrate responsibility. The benefits of having an "on-prem" solution include more security and potentially more options for integrating with other key business systems such as your HR solution or employee databases. A cloud-hosted MNS system resides on the internet and is often more affordable because the vendor can share the costs of the system with all of its customers. Having the system in the cloud gives you better availability and keeps the overall upkeep and maintenance on the system to a minimum.
2. Ease of initiating notification
The ease in which a notification can be sent is important. Consider whether you can initiate a notification from a mobile app, or whether you have to log into a computer, which might be impractical in an active shooter situation. These features, coupled with effective and clear governance about who and how notifications can be initiated (for example, what constitutes an emergency and who has the authority to lock the building down) will help ensure your MNS investment is well spent when and if you need to activate it.
3. Integration with other systems
Most businesses likely have a variety of other IT systems in place. Some of these systems already facilitate communication with employees like PA systems, email systems, instant messaging apps (like Slack). Integrations with applicable IT systems can simplify the process of getting and keep your notification database current (automatically uploading new employees), and provide additional modes of notification (e.g. announcements over PA systems, alarming, messages displayed on TV screens in lobbies, messages being posted to common employee forums), and social media. Integration may add additional costs to your MNS implementation, but it may very well be worth the investment.
SEE: 10 apps to help you prepare for, respond to, and recover from a natural disaster (TechRepublic)
You will notice that cost was not called out as a key feature. The reality is that cost is a factor, but MNS systems tend to be fairly affordable these days with a variety of options available designed to fit into a company's budget. Cost and features aside, MNS systems are a key part of a company's emergency response and business continuity planning activities. Corporate safety teams, IT administrators and business continuity professionals should always include MNS solutions in their incident response planning.
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Jeremy L. Smith, CISSP, is a cybersecurity and public safety professional who has worked with a variety of agencies to improve the security of their call centers and execute their public safety initiatives more effectively, including 911 call taking, cyber security, mass notification, and more. As the former chair of the NENA Security Working Group, he helped lead the development and creation of the public safety industry's first cyber security standards, NG-SEC. He is currently the general manager of the Mass Notification Division of Airbus DS Communications, a leader in the public safety market.