Two (or more) Types of Emergency Notification System

I was sitting in a meeting listening to a sales presentation on an Emergency Notification System. The client needed an Emergency Notification System. This wasn't what the client needed. What went wrong?

There's nothing worse than sitting through a sales presentation when everybody involved knows the salesman won't make the sale. The customers know – but are forced to ask polite questions and feign interest. The salesman knows – but even though he suspects the customers aren't interested the social conventions prevent him from terminating the presentation early.

So why was I enduring this apparently pointless presentation?

I'd been asked by a client to sit in on presentations by a number of companies that were selling emergency notification systems and to advise on which would meet their requirements. The customer had prepared a short list of potential vendors and the presentations were being delivered across the web, in this case supplemented by a noisy mobile phone connection at the salesman's end, and a speakerphone at our end.

The customer wanted an Emergency Notification System. The vendor was selling an Emergency Notification System. So what is an Emergency Notification System, and why was this presentation a waste of everybody's time?

When there is an emergency there is a list of people who need to be notified of the situation. For example, the emergency response teams and disaster recovery teams may need to be mobilized, and other employees may need to be advised not to come in to work. The list of people to be notified may be very short or extremely long.

In the Bad Old Days the notification was done with a phone tree. A group of employees would be called by telephone, these employees would call more employees, and so on.

Phone trees don't work.

Home telephone lists need to be kept up to date and distributed, privacy issues abound (do you really want that spooky guy Fred to have your home phone number?), and the whole mechanism needs to be sufficiently redundant that if some staff can't be contacted the message still gets through. This typically means that key staff have to be contacted by more than one person.

Enter stage right the 21st century, the internet, voice mail, SMS, and low cost telecommunications.

The only sensible way to do emergency notification now is by contracting it out to a specialist supplier. With one phone call, web access, or email you can notify hundreds of people simultaneously by phone, text message, and email. (You want to contract out this service as when your data center is going up in flames is precisely when you will need the service most. You also want a supplier with redundant data centers distributed geographically to handle Hurricane Katrina type scenarios.

So a modern emergency notification system is a wonderful thing and is truly an essential element of any reasonable business continuity plan. But why was this presentation pointless?

There are, in fact, two types of Emergency Notification System with two very different sets of requirements. Let's call these a Type One system and a Type Two system because, unfortunately, both use the same name.

Imagine your company's building is on fire. You need to contact your Emergency Management Team and your Disaster Recovery Teams. (We assume you have already notified the fire department). You want to contact these people regardless of where they are, tell them where to assemble, and to know who is available to respond. You also want to contact all your other employees, reassure them that they still have jobs, and ask them to stay home but stay available so that you can use them if needed. You can rely on your employees (with a little bit of poking from the Human Resources department) to keep their contact information up to date. This set of requirements is those of a Type One system.

Now imagine a slightly different situation. Your building contains toxic chemicals. There's a small danger of some of those chemicals being released into the atmosphere, and people downwind of the building need to be notified. The features you need now are the ability to contact a large number of locations in a specific geographic area. You aren't trying to track down specific people wherever they might be, and even if you were, it's unlikely those people would want to keep you informed of their latest contact information. This is where a Type Two system is required. If you are a local municipality this is the sort of system you need to notify your constituents of a disaster. (You also need a Type One system to contact your own employees).

The requirements of Type One Systems and Type Two systems are so different that it is unlikely a system that is excellent at meeting one set of requirements will be any good at the other.

Unfortunately, the client needed a Type One System and the salesman was valiantly trying to sell a Type Two system. It was frustrating and painful to listen to the presentation: if you keep in mind the distinction between the two sets of requirements, hopefully you will never have to do the same.

12 August 2008

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