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Emergency Communications Systems: 5 Do's and 5 Don'ts

By Bill Grubner Jr.
Nov 18, 2008 4:00 AM PT

What mistakes will cause emergency communication systems to undergo excessive stress or possibly fail in a disaster, and what steps should be taken to improve performance?

Emergency Communications Systems: 5 Do's and 5 Don'ts

One of the biggest challenges for emergency communication centers is the wide range of situations that require responses -- including man-made emergencies such as power outages, terrorist attacks, gunshots, toxic fumes and epidemics, as well as natural disasters such as fires, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. Many of the best-known examples, such as Hurricane Katrina, required multiple waves of response that spanned months.

When an emergency occurs, a wide variety of federal, state and local agencies must respond.

While the first response to a disaster typically falls on local emergency services, many emergencies require the services of multiple agencies, such as help from nearby municipalities, the state and volunteer agencies. Sometimes responses extend beyond government entities, to private partners or contractors. At other times, the need is more focused and localized, such as an event impacting only a single school or university.

The ability to respond quickly and effectively is critical to all organizations, but government agencies have particular challenges. They are faced with extremely high expectations for a rapid response. Given the right tools and technologies, government agencies can meet and even exceed those expectations.

This article outlines five of the most common mistakes and best best practices agencies make in emergency communication. It is important to leverage technology for both inbound and outbound citizen and constituent communication, to improve the performance of the entire emergency communication system and free up resources where they can be used most effectively.

What is Emergency Response Communications?

Emergency response communications consists of a complex set of tactical and logistical systems that enable effective emergency response management.

While many forms of communications are used during emergencies, from public address systems to walkie-talkies and radios, our goal is to provide insight on how to best leverage and optimize the most frequently used channels, such as the phone, Web, SMS/text messaging, e-mail and other large-scale communication channels.

Emergency communications systems provide the ability to inform citizens and responders during an emergency and serve as a mission critical element of any emergency response plan. Increasingly, agencies are now relying on contact centers to perform these tasks, as the number of communications channels and touch points expand to include any channel to receive, access and exchange voice, text, visual and multimedia data with one another on demand and in real time.

In fact, one of the most critical issues in developing an emergency response plan for government is determining how best to design an emergency communication system. The top systems are able to notify and communicate with a diverse base of citizens in a consistent and cohesive manner. But many emergency and disaster plans have not sufficiently anticipated and planned for the scale and diversity of how technology will be used in a crunch. As a result, they are limited to one or two channels of communication, which may or may not be integrated, and that can lead to bottlenecks during emergencies.

Five Frequent Mistakes

For many agencies, emergency response communications is a work in progress, as changes in technology and the response environment require the most sophisticated systems. Even those with time-tested systems in place fall into traps. What are some of the most common mistakes agencies make, and how can they be avoided?

  1. Don't underestimate the need for ongoing communication. By their nature, emergency responses place most of the emphasis on the first wave of response, when time is critical. While that approach is absolutely necessary, especially for first responders, it sometimes creates an environment in which ongoing communication is under-resourced. For example, when Hurricane Ike recently ravaged Texas and caused 1 million people to flee, the biggest initial concern was evacuation, but in some areas, Ike turned out to be less destructive than originally thought. Once it became apparent that it was safe to return, the communications needs shifted to a second wave of information about which areas were safe to return to and status updates on power, roads and services.

    Moreover, each emergency may contain its own set of unique information waves. For example, in Hurricane Ike, one unexpected communication need was to direct a series of specific messages that the federal government had decided to impose a "hurricane amnesty" for the state's estimated 1.6 million unauthorized immigrants, because many were reluctant to leave or to work with emergency workers out of fear of being deported. Under the circumstances, the federal government determined to place greater importance on safety than on immigration law enforcement, and directed several waves of communication toward this audience. Multiple, initial messages were sent out proactively to convince everyone to evacuate, and after the hurricane subsided, additional messages were needed to reassure people that it was alright to return and to encourage them to work together with safety and recovery workers.

    While immigration was an unusual hot-button issue in the middle of a natural disaster, it is not uncommon to have multiple audiences that need tailored messaging and multiple communications, sometimes in more than one language. Also, when a citizen receives an initial message, it will spark a "return wave" of inbound requests for information. In addition, most emergencies will require several waves of status updates.

  2. Don't allow inbound demand to overwhelm both live and automated systems. Although typically agencies try to divert traffic from live assistance to self-service during emergencies, peak demand is difficult to manage. At peak capacity, demand can quickly overwhelm even multiple systems. A major emergency too often overloads the local authority's response system in a matter of minutes or hours. Avoiding this requires an enhanced response management structure that not only diverts from live service to automated systems, but also load balances among multiple systems or sites. In reality, many agencies will allow themselves to become reactive after the first wave and end up being inundated by incoming calls or requests that could have been handled through proactive outbound communication. Even automated voice systems can quickly become clogged due to too many phone calls, and it is difficult to add lines or ports unless the agency is using managed services, outsourcers or diverting overflow to other agencies. It is rare to find an agency that has done a good job of implementing such an overflow system.
  3. Don't let the lack of unified systems lead to uncoordinated communication. Few agencies have yet created, or plan to invest in, a true multichannel capability to communicate with citizens. The challenge to having multiple independent communications channels is not only in balancing volume, but also in managing an agency's ability to identify and route inquiries to the right resource. For example, if the intent of a caller is known and they have a need that is not addressed in the automated system, it may be more appropriate to direct them to a live resource.

    Most agencies also fail to create systems with the ability to target their notifications to the appropriate responder based on such factors as citizen needs and responder skills, location and availability. Unified systems typically need to leverage business rules to determine how acknowledgments from the responder are treated, and whether to keep trying to contact the same responder or to locate an alternate responder instead.

  4. Don't fail to align systems with multiple agencies and response partners. When multiple agencies need to work together, their systems are often poorly integrated and ineffective. This results in duplication, chaos and misinformation as each system provides its own unique content.

    In the state of New York, for example, until a recent effort to revamp the system, many municipalities and other entities in the state (such as public school systems) had independent, uncoordinated emergency notification systems in place. This complex set of systems can often overlap or provide redundant information. It is important to note that these are not always voice-based systems and can include multiple communication methods, such as e-mail, instant messaging, fax, pagers and SMS text. This interwoven morass of different systems is not only expensive to maintain, but can lead to uncoordinated or conflicting information -- with potentially devastating results.

  5. Don't make content overly complex. Complex content can lead to confusion and, ultimately, more inbound requests for assisted service. Whenever citizens are confused or cannot get the information they need, inbound phone calls will increase, and the system will undergo more stress.

    Complexity in a voice self-service system, where the agency tries to address a large number of questions, can lead to too many prompts in an IVR, causing the citizen to "zero out" to speak to a live agent. In SMS text, avoid the use of unnecessary information, keep messages brief and comply with the 160 character limitation. Use direct, straightforward language and communicate all necessary actions. Try to tailor SMS alerts to the audience whenever possible, to avoid adding information that is not relevant to the target audience.

Five Best Practices

Advanced government organizations are leading the way by embracing new technologies, capabilities and ideas that improve emergency response communication. Here are a few of the best practices that are emerging:

  1. Anticipate and pre-program content. While much of the challenge of each emergency is in delivering unique and timely content, a significant portion of the content programming can be done in advance to anticipate needs. For example, New York's State Emergency Management Office (NYSEMO) sought to develop a system called "NY-Alert" to align and rationalize its multiple systems. The agency spent 18 months developing a mass-dissemination portal that supports all the desired communication media, as well as 182 alert classifications, including alerts related to missing persons, road closures and other traffic issues, school safety and animal recovery.

    Developing classes of content in advance can enable better use of proactive outbound systems, which will significantly alleviate the crush of inbound traffic during emergencies. The NYSEMO system was set up for voice, e-mail and outbound SMS. While such advance work will not eliminate the need to update for a specific emergency, it can go a long way toward making it easier to engage in proactive outbound communication.

  2. Spread demand by leveraging virtualization and multiagency capabilities. Agencies that spread capacity across multiple agencies and facilities dramatically reduce peak load volumes. The advantages of such an approach are seen in the growing use of 3-1-1 systems. Bringing together multiple agencies helps streamline the emergency response process and funnel inquiries to a central source. This creates a more efficient framework than independent responses from multiple public and private sources. A survey found that nearly one-fifth (19.5 percent) of emergency response centers now rely on 3-1-1 to handle a large influx of calls.

    For example, during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Houston 3-1-1 was able to effectively respond to more than 100,000 citizens in a five-day period without being overwhelmed. One of the keys to this approach has been the use of Internet telephony and IP technology, which make it possible for a single phone system to transfer calls over the Internet to multiple departments or agencies located anywhere. Such technology eliminates the need for independent phone systems and switches, none of which were able to communicate with each other.

  3. Overestimate capacity needs. Emergency access demands inevitably lead to spikes in volume. Government organizations are well served to err on the high side of expectations rather than cutting it too fine when they estimate their capacity needs.

    For example, in the NY-Alert system, they followed this best practice by stress testing the system at high levels. They tested the NY-Alert system with 24,000 telephone lines for two minutes, sending two million messages per second without any failures. The agency reported that its voice system could place up to 27,000 telephone calls within one minute. After that, the length of the message would determine capacity. The same system can send large volumes of e-mail messages -- approximately 40,000 per minute. These volumes can be expanded, if necessary, by the addition of more servers. An agency that plans and tests at similarly high levels is unlikely to be overwhelmed during an emergency.

  4. Incorporate multichannel capabilities. Five channels have emerged as the most important ones to support: e-mail, SMS text, voice self-service, live assisted service and proactive automated outbound calls. The advantage of an integrated multichannel approach is that it enables citizens to enter the system from a variety of touch points while still receiving consistent information and instruction. The agencies hoping to embrace best practices will also look beyond these core capabilities, to support fax, integrate with geographic information systems (GIS) and leverage graphics capabilities such as 3G phones or video.
  5. Leverage emerging new resources. A variety of new resources are available that most agencies have not yet tapped into, but should. For example, the U.S. government is establishing a public-private partnership with commercial mobile service providers to transmit emergency text alerts to mobile phones. The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is acting as the agency that validates these emergency text notifications before they are sent to the commercial mobile service providers and then on to mobile phone subscribers. While government organizations need to continue to maintain their existing alert systems, they should also begin investigating how to participate in this new national commercial mobile alert system (CMAS). While CMAS will only transmit limited types of messages (which fall into three classifications: Presidential, imminent threat and child-abduction/Amber alerts), it represents a new resource to disseminate public alerts.

    Another emerging set of resources are the community and social networking sites that can serve as a resource during emergencies. Although most organizations are not yet prepared to embrace them, they offer an important adjunct to existing systems. To reach younger people, agencies may soon want to consider how to incorporate blogs, community forums, peer discussions, or other Web 2.0 mechanisms as resources suitable for emergency communication. While many government agencies remain skeptical, it is clear that, for certain age groups, they are already an important resource.

While many agencies are much better prepared than they were only a few years ago, the majority are still looking to evolve their approach. It is an ongoing process, but each bit of progress is critical to ensuring a safer citizenry.


Bill Grubner Jr. is manager of government emergency solutions for Genesys Labs, a developer of contact center software.


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