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Selecting the Right Outbound Notification and Emergency Communications System (Part 1 of 2)

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Leo A. Wrobel and Sharon M. Wrobel, of b4Ci Inc. and NaSPA, list the important qualities to find when choosing a communications system for emergency situations.
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<CRASH!>

"What in the world was that?"

Sharon and Leo have used that phrase a lot over the years, having raised seven children. It usually starts with a sudden loud noise originating upstairs with the kids. Leo usually tries to ignore the racket and not look up from the TV, but Sharon can almost always be counted on to look up at the ceiling and yell, "What happened?!"—particularly if sharp cries accompany the aforementioned household anomaly. "What happened?!" might just be the most popular phrase in our household, right after "When do we eat?"

Humor aside, isn't a phrase like this one literally the first thing anyone asks after an unusual event? It's the same when responding to a disaster. There is an immediate need for accurate information about precisely what happened. Based on that information, responders can make intelligent, informed decisions about what to do first.

Fortunately, today it's possible (and highly desirable) to automate this process with the help of many new and exciting technologies. But how can your company select a system from among the many options available? Should you use an outbound notification system? What about command-and-control communications, especially if the phone company itself is out of service? How will you accommodate inbound calls from your company's customers—which are often the very lifeblood of your organization?

Many companies have responded to the growing need to maintain control in a disaster. A good one can help you to organize your recovery effort and stay in control, by helping you to get the word out immediately about the emergency—severe weather, fire, sabotage or terrorism, system failures, etc.

How do you begin to select a service or company? The primary considerations when evaluating the myriad commercial alternatives available today are as follows:

  1. Alerting the right individuals to the disaster
  2. Delivering instructions to orchestrate a safe and effective response

Let's examine the issues in more detail.

It's All About 4Ci

Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, a nineteenth century German field marshal, originated the famous quote, "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy." No matter how well you plan for situations, a disaster introduces change and new complexities. Imagine terrified cavemen retreating after a well-planned skirmish, screaming, "They have clubs!" Every new development in human history since that time, from bronze to iron to gunpowder to nuclear weapons, has changed not only the face of battle but also the whole paradigm of a battle plan. Those who could quickly communicate and adapt had a better chance to respond and survive. Although we face a different enemy in the world of contingency planning, the same is true in our profession, where situations and required responses can change just as dramatically.

The U.S. military has long recognized the need for what it calls "4Ci," which stands for command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence. The first three elements should be self-evident; in order to recover from any disaster, you must be able to maintain command and control through communications. Computers (and other electronic aids) are part of the equation because decisions today often need to be made faster than people can make them. In this context, a "computer" may be a PDA, smartphone, laptop, or any other device that aids the responder in making faster decisions. Finally, in the context of 4Ci, intelligence is the ability to determine what happened, with 100% certainty, in order to be able to coordinate recovery. First-rate intelligence means making first-rate decisions leading to a successful response, whereas inferior intelligence can lead to wasting valuable time following blind leads and inaccurate assumptions, at the very time when seconds count.

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