The Role of Notification Technology
An Interview with Karla Lemmon from Honeywell

Why should a safety, risk or security administrator consider implementing an emergency mass notification solution in their organization?

Organizations need to be prepared to react and communicate in any situation. Take the recent H1N1 flu pandemic scare, for example. Businesses and other organizations needed to communicate important information to employees wherever they were — on the road, in the office or somewhere in between. Traditionally, phone trees, e-mails and broadcast outlets are some of the tools that have been used to deliver information. However, today’s society is more mobile than ever and organizations can’t assume that someone is sitting at their desk or tuned in to the radio to get a message. So having a mass notification service that uses multiple channels — e-mail, phone, cell phone, pager, PDA, etc. — to deliver a single, consistent message is critical.

Time also is a significant factor in an emergency. And a mass notification solution can help reach hundreds of thousands of people in minutes, a fraction of the time it takes to disseminate information via a phone tree or auto-dialer system. That extra time could be the difference between a best- and worst-case outcome. Plus, being able to quickly reach people in a crisis means less confusion and incoming calls. As a result, organizations are able to focus their resources on managing the situation, not answering phones.

What features should organizations look for when evaluating notification solutions?

With the right set of features, notification technology can provide significant value in some not-so-obvious ways. For example, a city experiences a situation where severe weather prevents the mayor, police chief and emergency response personnel from meeting in one place. A notification solution with teleconference bridging can send a message to all key decision makers, no matter where they are, and gather them together with the press of a button on their telephone.

In addition to teleconferencing, an emergency notification system that allows administrators to send file attachments with e-mail and faxed messages is beneficial. Attachments allow organizations to provide more detail and direction in the event of an emergency. For example, evacuation plans and alternative routes can be sent in case of an approaching hurricane, or an image of a suspect in a campus shooting can be sent to students to increase awareness.

Ultimately, the important features are going to vary from customer to customer. Cities may only need to push messages out to residents, while a hospital may need a two-way communication tool that allows administrators to poll employees to fill work schedules. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. So it makes sense to look for a solution that can be customized. Being able to tailor the offering to individual needs will ensure greater acceptance and return on investment.

Really digging into the technology behind the solution is important as well. If you’re paying for a service that’s hosted off site, for instance, what is the architecture, uptime and reliability of the data center that receives and disseminates the information? What happens if a piece of equipment fails? Are message delivery and delivery rates guaranteed? These are all worthwhile questions to ask.

What are some best practices you would suggest?

An effective emergency response plan includes emergency notification not only in the response stage, but also in the preparation stage. Preparing messages in advance of an emergency and storing them within the notification system to improve response time and reduce the chance for mistakes is a best practice in emergency notification.

Also, creating specialized lists is a best practice. The ability to create targeted lists for staff, emergency responders and other groups ensures the appropriate contacts receive information relevant to their role in the situation. The real-time reporting takes this a step further by allowing organizations to see who has, and has not, received the message so they can respond accordingly.

Lastly, organizations and end-users should become familiar with the system. This can be done through training and regular testing on a monthly or quarterly basis. In addition to helping familiarize users with the system, regular testing also allows organizations to update contact information and ensure alerts are properly set up.

What rules should organizations follow when creating and sending messages?

A good message should be clear, concise and to the point. The message should always include the date, time and the name of the person sending the alert. The alert should also be recorded in the sender's own voice, if appropriate. This verifies to the contacts that the alert is legitimate and can also provide a sense of calm and familiarity in the event of a crisis situation.

Additionally, organizations should remember that emergency situations are often extremely fluid — so they should communicate constantly and consistently. When sending an alert, organizations should provide direction, if applicable, and include "stay tuned for further updates" if the situation is not yet resolved. Organizations should then follow up with contacts as promised. Lastly, organizations should send an all-clear message when the situation is resolved.

Is there a way for an organization’s risk/security management team to calculate a ROI factor in its mass notification solution?

It’s definitely possible to determine ROI for a mass notification solution — especially when it’s used for more routine communication. That’s because there is the potential for both material and labor savings, which organizations can easily measure. There are other ways to calculate a return as well. Newport Independent School District in Kentucky, for instance, implemented Honeywell Instant Alert for Schools to help combat truancy. After one year of using the service to notify parents whose kids were absent, the district saw a 1.5 percent increase in attendance, which generated $80,000 in additional state funding.

ROI is more difficult to capture in an emergency situation. But the value of peace of mind or a life potentially saved far outweighs the cost of a solution.

About the Expert
Karla Lemmon is the program leader for Honeywell Instant Alert®, a Web-based notification service that quickly delivers critical information and direction in an emergency. Lemmon holds an engineering degree from Valparaiso University in Indiana and an MBA from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached