In times of emergency, timely information delivery is a critical element that can minimize the effects of unplanned outages on a business. During times of distress, executives need to know what works and what is under threat to make key business decisions that could affect the long-term health of the company.
Disaster response teams need to be notified to activate carefully preplanned recovery and continuity strategies, and rank-and-file employees need to be kept in the loop so they know what responsibilities they have-to keep morale up and let them know where they need to go and what they need to do. Likewise, company officials need to know what they can expect from their employees.
A company that puts out significant effort to create a resilient disaster recovery plan may find that unreliable channels will be called upon as the lines of communication when disaster strikes. Many companies find themselves relying on a phone tree: The CEO has to notify the board of directors, the board authorizes the disaster team into action, and each member of the disaster team calls a portion of the employee base to let them know what’s going on and what is expected of them. And so on.
The problem with phone trees is that they can quickly fall apart and may not deliver pertinent information fast enough. If someone in an early tier can’t be reached or can’t reach out to others, those below on the tree fall by the wayside without instructions, news or duties unless someone else fills the breach.
Within the last few years, businesses with robust business continuity plans have turned to mass notification systems-like those provided by 3N or MIR3-to more efficiently foster communications under emergent conditions. These automated systems leverage multiple modes of communication, allowing the organization to reach out in many ways to employees to inform, instruct and collect data.
Ideally, these services will integrate with other disaster recovery solutions already in place, allowing the company to trigger predefined notifications using the same tools used to spin up off-site computing resources or other recovery solutions.
The adoption of emergency notification services should not be considered a luxury or a potential cost-savings cut in a turbulent economy. Instead, emergency notifications should be budgeted as a requirement of a business continuity management plan-mapped out in a way that can minimize costs while ensuring it will meet the company’s need in time of emergency.
As there are many notification solutions available, there are several things to think about when selecting a provider, weeding out companies that may be acceptable for notifications for regular work practices or noncritical emergencies from those that can deliver in time of crisis.
Weighing the Options
Among the considerations, businesses should weigh the architecture of the system, the modes of communication supported, the way the system interacts with other business processes, and whether the solution can both deliver and return critical information.
The notification service must provide an architecture that makes sense for the company and the conditions. Some notification providers offer premises-based solutions, installed on their clients’ networks. Because a customer’s network could be under significant duress in emergency conditions-and because of potentially prohibitive costs-these premises-based solutions are inappropriate for emergency situations. Instead, a hosted model is much more resilient and affordable, provided the notification vendor can demonstrate the geographic distribution of data centers, network resiliency, network security and management features that will be essential for a reliable system.
In the wake of 9/11, a number of studies showed that text messaging proved more reliable than the cellular and landline phone systems around New York City as the crisis unfolded. Many notification vendors subsequently targeted text messaging as the right channel to distribute a large number of emergency notifications in a short amount of time.
However, recent studies such as “Characterizing the Limitations of Third-Party EAS over Cellular Text Messaging Services,” written by Georgia Institute of Technology’s Patrick Traynor, have shown that text messaging is not a reliable channel for large-scale notification services.
Due to the overhead on the cellular network when locating users to deliver messages, as well as the overall lack of predictability of message delivery, enterprises should not solely rely on text messaging for notification purposes.
Instead, business continuity implementers should look for notification providers that support multiple channels of communication, spanning across phone-landlines, cell or VOIP (voice over IP)-e-mail, text messaging and fax, if necessary.
The provider should offer a framework to its customers to prioritize communication channels and tailor channel usage according to needs particular to certain user groups. The provider also needs to provide intuitive tools to help contact information stay as up-to-date as possible-whether that means pulling data directly from the corporate directory or allowing authorized users to update data directly.
Companies should look to expand beyond the simple one-way flow of information. Enterprises should instead aim to gather information about their employees as part of the notification process-collecting information about the employee’s safety, location and availability for work. Companies will find resuming operations much more likely if it collects tangible proof that employees have received and understood the directions as offered, as well as details on how best to contact them going forward.
Ideally, the notification provider will offer these services across several different communication channels, and the provider should offer the information to the customer’s business leaders in a way that fits in with other business continuity solutions and practices the customer may employ.
eWEEK Labs Senior Technical Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at [email protected]