Riders on the storm

Sam Fenwick hears from a range of vendors in the critical messaging sector, with a focus on current trends and recent developments

When disasters strike, they can upturn the lives of thousands – rising to millions in the most extreme circumstances. While smaller incidents such as an active shooter at a school or an industrial plant malfunction have the potential to affect a smaller population, a wide range of different stakeholders still need to be alerted and kept informed. To this end, a range of mass notification and alerting systems have been developed and are in use across the world.

Back in June, Everbridge’s Unified Messaging Systems (UMS) subsidiary added its Location Based Alerting System (LBAS) solution to the critical event management services it was already providing to the Swedish authorities. Imad Mouline, Everbridge’s CTO, says LBAS allows an operator or public safety operator to define an area on a map and have texts or messages sent to everyone with a cellular device in that area. It can also distinguish between those with local SIMs and visitors to the country with foreign SIMs, allowing messages to have different instructions, depending on whether the recipients will be residents, or be in different languages.

He adds the company has deployed a fairly similar system in Norway and that in contrast to the one in Sweden, it has seen some large activations, citing one that contacted around 800,000 people in the Oslo area, despite the population being officially around 630,000. Roughly 60,000 visitors or foreigners were included in the initial activation and roughly 100,000 people were contacted over a weekend when they entered the geofenced region.

In addition to the ability to message people in a defined area over a set duration, Mouline adds that the system allows visitors to another country where an incident has occurred to be contacted by their home country’s authorities and their locations to be pinpointed. The system relies on mobile phone sites to determine people’s whereabouts, which means the resolution of its location data is determined by the region’s topology and how dense the mobile networks are.

Turning to best practice, Mouline highlights the need to have prepared plans for communication during an incident (or incident type) in advance. “You cannot think through how to communicate with people after the fact, those are all plans that have to be set ahead of time. If your plan does not include the immediate ability to understand who is a member of the crisis management team, the response team, central command and first-responders without having to go through a paper-based process, then you don’t have the right plan.”

He adds it is also crucial to determine exactly who will be impacted by the incident, as well as the people [eg, government officials] who need to be kept in the loop, “as there is nothing first-responders and emergency management personnel dislike more than being constantly interrupted by outside parties asking them ‘what’s going on, what’s the impact, what are you doing?’”.

He also emphasises the importance of performing a blame-free after-action review “to understand what worked and what didn’t, what could be improved”, and then use these learnings to adjust the response for similar incidents in future.

Moving onto the “part art, part science” of crafting the right message in emergency situations, Mouline says Everbridge advocates a “3-3-30” approach to messaging – each message should communicate only three ideas in three sentences in no more than 30 words (or 30 seconds of voice). In terms of the ideas, some of the key ones to covey are: what the situation entails, what does it mean for the recipient and, finally, “and this is incredibly important, tell them what to do. Never leave it as an ambiguous idea.” Mouline adds that if the second point doesn’t apply, then it’s generally best to say when the next update will be provided and then follow up with it.

When it comes to mass messaging, much can be done prior to the incident, if there is sufficient notice. Mouline highlights the way in which the State of Florida prepared for Hurricane Irma – its “governor went on television and provided the residents with a simple way to opt in to receive preparation information for the hurricane. All they had to do was to text FLPrepares to an SMS short code.” He explains that through doing so and by providing this information prior to the hurricane, far fewer emergency calls were initiated for immediate intervention than would otherwise have been the case.

However, there are some types of natural disaster where there is very little advance warning before they strike – “with a tornado you may have six to 12 minutes from the time it is detected to the time that it can have devastating consequences,” Mouline says. Because of this, while normally Mouline says the ideal situation is to have humans and algorithms working hand in hand, “having human beings in the midst of that workflow isn’t a luxury that we can always afford. So what you can do is have the system make a determination that under very specific and narrow circumstances, if information from an incredibly secure and vetted source comes in dictating that a life-threatening situation is about to happen, is imminent and human beings would only slow it down, then it can trigger a predefined protocol. We have that type of set-up deployed in a variety of areas around the world, for very narrow use-cases.”

Water level sensors on a dam are an example of where this might apply. “We have deployments where these can tell us if the water is getting to a dangerous level and can automatically trigger the process that determines who should come and visually inspect what’s going on and then ultimately trigger the next few steps in a protocol. If human beings don’t respond within a certain amount of time then the system can trigger emergency procedures [manual or automatically] that may include in a worst-case scenario calling for an evacuation of any human beings that happen to be in the underlying areas.”

Iwan Schumacher, Swissphone’s head of industrial solutions, says trends such as digitalisation, Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (IoT) are resulting in more alarms for operators to deal with. He adds that because of this, alarm fatigue is a growing issue and can make it harder for operators to do their job, making it important that alarms are filtered and prioritised.

He adds that companies are seeking to reduce the number of alarming systems that they use and centralise their alarming process, so they have just one solution for all their building and operations in different companies. This makes it easier to keep the contacts in the system up to date (a single database can be used; for example, one belonging to a company’s HR department) and results in less potential for errors and reduces training requirements. Schumacher also says that most of the failures that occur in alarm systems are due to contact details being out of date, which prevents the message from reaching the right person in time. One other advantage he sees with the centralised approach is that relying on a single vendor prevents multiple vendors from passing the buck between each other if a problem arises.

He also sees demand for cloud services in this area, and on the vendor side there is a growing number of interfaces that have to be combined with any given solution, resulting in greater complexity, and their development is also influenced by the short lifecycle of third-party devices, creating a need to constantly work to keep up to date.

Schumacher adds that Swissphone can combine multiple types of alarming systems (including multi-messaging/SMS, lone-worker alerting), which results in centralised administration for all alarm scenarios.

Everbridge’s Mouline notes that more means of communication keep on being added, but old ones aren’t being removed. “We send out hundreds of thousands of faxes on a yearly basis and it’s part of a process that’s well established, so technology moves faster than regulations and that is the world that we live in.” He adds that the more means of communication that are used the better, because “when disaster strikes, the chances are that some forms of communication will no longer be available, will be degraded or be less than optimal, so the more ways we have to communicate with people, the higher the likelihood we have of getting through to them and being able to receive their responses”.

He cites the issues that France has had with its “attempts to deploy a mobile app exclusively after the Paris attack”, and that “it failed in Nice, with notifications going out three, four hours after the fact. Part of the issue was they relied on a single means of communicating with residents, and when they needed it most, it failed.”

One other way to alert people in large numbers is the use of sirens and public announcement systems, and these can be integrated with alerting networks. Swissphone has recently upgraded the siren control system in South Tyrol to a digital system with encryption (as they had been hacked in the past, resulting in the issuing of false alerts).

The need for a multi-model approach to critical messaging is something that resonates with Matt Wright, CEO of GlobalView Systems (GVS), a UK-based software development company. He cites an incident where a school (which was equipped with three two-way radios) had to go into lockdown as there was a person with a knife on the premises when the headmaster was offsite, forcing him to communicate with both staff and parents via WhatsApp. GVS will soon be entering the mass notification sector as part of its three-year business plan, and Wright says its alarm platform can work with pagers, two-way radios, Android, iOS and PTT over Cellular devices, and that the company is in the final stages of working to allow it to support Hytera’s hybrid handsets. Its developers also recently adjusted the company’s Retain application – which is designed to allow retained/volunteer firefighters to report their status and allow volunteer-based fire brigades to see if they have the right number of volunteers with the appropriate specialisms to be able to respond to an incident – to work on the Hytera PDC760 DMR/LTE two-way radio.

Wright highlights the sheer number of lockdown-style incidents that take place around the world – “in Canada, for example, you’ve got a school lockdown most weeks”. Wright adds that GVS has partnered with Paxton Access to create an application that allows doors to be locked using two-way radio, and “we’re looking to try and reverse that so the police or the emergency services can unlock facilities [using their two-way radios] so they’re not having to break down fire doors or wrestle their way in”.

Peter Tanner, founder and CEO of Boomerang, which provides automated alerting over SMS, email and voice, says the use of text-based messaging between public safety organisations and the public “via a stepped process of SMS that delivers a report to the agent who can then execute it and that allows the customer to do it [when convenient]”, for the reporting of non-critical information, “takes pressure off the police and the call centre and the whole thing slows down and calms down. It also means that if there’s any critical information passed, both the police and the customer have it in writing.”

Public safety organisations are increasingly discussing service level agreements (SLAs) with commercial operators, given the growing acceptance that these will play a major role in delivering mission-critical LTE, due to the scarcity of capital and spectrum for dedicated networks. This suggests that being able to monitor SLAs, and informing public safety users if there is an issue that could impact them, will become more important.

Tanner says the solutions that have been typically provided for managing SLA communications “are generally very costly, cumbersome and quite old in terms of their development process”, and that Boomerang has worked to address this by developing its Incident Hub solution “that allows an organisation to – from the push of a button or an inbound trigger – automatically manage the service level agreement requirements around each and every process they might have out to their stakeholders and maintain those communications with the appropriate updates until such time as the incident is completed”.

He explains that one issue encountered when using SMS messaging in a critical capacity is that “once they’ve sent the first message out and they’re waiting for a response, they can’t send any more messages out because there’s no way of knowing, once two messages are out, which message is being responded to. This forces the organisation to switch to a different communications channel. But in [public safety] there’s never one incident – someone who has to be in contact for an incident generally would be in contact for a number of different types of incidents or multiple incidents as they occur. As soon as an event happens and a subsequent event happens, SMS [normally can’t be used] again, they have to go to email or voice or a call centre. However, Boomerang’s patented intelligent messaging technology can maintain an SMS communication irrespective of the quantity of messages or the order of reply.”

He adds that in terms of the user experience, it’s preferable if the same mode of communication is maintained throughout the incident and that this applies to SMS and also two-way radio and paging. With this in mind, Boomerang is “tying up with an organisation that provides a very simple box that can be connected to private paging and radio networks, allowing us to deliver [our service into these systems]. The box also allows us to connect into other systems like building management systems, fire [alarm] systems, IT systems…”

We’ve seen that the key to successful mass notification during an incident lies in prior planning and there is something of an art and science to writing the perfect message. At the same time, the growing number of alarm sources and the dangers of having many disparate systems are prompting users to consolidate and centralise. It will be interesting to see what new means of communication emerge over the coming years and how the sector adapts to the growth of IoT and the tendency for more IT systems to become mission-critical over time, while also supporting the response to an increasing number of natural disasters, thanks to climate change.