Considerations for Evaluating an Emergency Communications System
The 4Ci aspects of disaster recovery have become a lot easier, thanks to VoIP (Voice over I/P), managed PBXs, and some good old-fashioned innovation by commercial providers. These solutions offer a quantum leap in recovery technology on a subscription basis at zero capital expense, with just a manageable monthly cost. In our opinion, no recovery plan today is complete without an evaluation of what's available in this area. Look for a system with the following primary characteristics:
- Outbound notification
- Inbound call recovery
The following sections discuss the details you need to check for each of these two feature areas.
In an emergency, if your phone system isn't working, or the provider is unavailable, how will you contact customers? How will you let employees and business partners know about the situation and the status of your organization? Our previous articles have discussed this topic in some detail, so the following list just highlights the major points to consider with regard to selecting a notification system:
- Does the system broadcast email? Most of the people you will need to contact probably have a PDA, laptop, or smartphone that can receive email. Remember that the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) may be a casualty of the disaster, and normal communication may not be possible. Email uses the VoIP protocol, which is a technology designed for disaster recovery. Years ago, military planners realized that AT&T primary toll offices might be destroyed in a nuclear exchange. This was the driving force behind creation of the Internet protocol (IP), in which semi-smart packets of information could find their way through the portions of the network that were still intact. The strengths of the Internet protocol work for commercial planners to this day. Email might still get through when a lot of other infrastructure is gone.
- Is text messaging available? With the phone systems out, email still might get throughbut maybe not. If the situation is dire enough, even Internet service providers could be affected. Does that mean that you must remain out of touch? Not if you plan ahead. Consider the text messages that many of us send every day. These messages traverse the Short Message Service (SMS) network, not the Internet. SMS, also known as Signaling System #7 (SS7), is the data network that tells the voice network what to do. It's quite a resilient system. A lot of emergency communications systems use SMS message notification and can allow you to broadcast thousands of text messages in a disaster. This system offers two obvious advantages:
- The SMS network is different from the Internet, so even if your Internet service provider is out of commission, you still may be able to send out messages.
- Because most cell phones can receive text messages, many of the people you need to contact may already be carrying the equipment to receive your message.
- Can the system initiate your emergency response plan in multiple ways? Since it's impossible to say with certainty which telecom technology will survive after a disaster (wireless, landlines, email, etc.), planning for several options leaves you "room to live." Find out whether the system you're considering can be initiated via web connection, touchtone phone, wireless phone, or PDA. As an additional option, can the service provider start the system for you if you're completely cut off?
- Will the system establish outbound conference calls? One feature I enjoyed 30 years ago in the Air Force was the ability to pick up a phone, dial a special code, and have every command center that needed to be involved on the line with mebased on the specific disaster that happened. At that time, the capability required a $50 million Autovon switch. Today, you can get that feature in a $1,000 server or lease it from the right provider.
- Does the service offer "find me/follow me" features? Whether they're at home, in the office, or in the car; and via pager, PDA, or text message, can you be sure that you'll never lose touch with key first responders? The "find me/follow me" feature tries all available devices until the person is located. There are more phones in service per individual now than at any previous time in recorded history. A service that rings each number automatically (home, office, wireless, etc.) saves you the trouble of documenting all those numbers.
Examples: Check out Velleros to see an SMS-based system in action. To find providers; just run a web search on SMS messaging.
Inbound Call Recovery
Don't just think about how you'll call out. Remember that a lot of peopleemployees, customers, clients, patientsmay be trying to call in. It's possible that in an emergency these people will have no idea what has happened, so don't expect them to dial special emergency numbers, or to take any additional action whatsoever. By planning ahead, however, you can use technology to make the disaster transparent to anyone who calls. Look for the following features in any system you're evaluating:
- Can the service redirect inbound telephone calls instantly? You want to be able to send calls to any working telephone numberbranch office, home phone, wireless, VoIP, satellite phone, etc.without having to call the phone company. This feature obviously saves the time delay of trying to disseminate new emergency numbers later.
- Can the service duplicate the call prompts that exist today in your network? If customers are used to pressing 1 for sales, 2 for customer service, etc., transparency preserves your normal business and makes callers believe that everything is okay, even if they know that a disaster has occurred.
Example: Telecom Recovery has a very feature-rich offering.