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Mass notification systems are one-way communications architectures that broadcast information to a group of people in the event of an emergency. These systems have traditionally been used by first responders (fire, police, etc.), the military, and by government agencies. The National Weather Service, for example, uses a mass notification system to convey storm warnings to those who could potentially be impacted.
Large companies have increasingly been adopting mass notification systems for internal use. An internal notification system might, for example, be used to alert employees that the organization's office is closed because of a snowstorm. Similarly, an internal notification system might be used to alert employees to a fire on another floor of the building. Such systems are being used more often in disaster recovery planning, as rapid, reliable mass communications become more widely accessible to private organizations. Along with having plans in place for data recovery, more companies are establishing notification systems during times of disaster to communicate and organize recovery efforts.
Because mass notifications are used to convey time-sensitive and potentially lifesaving information, it is critically important for them to work properly. Organizations that use internal emergency notification systems must periodically test those systems in order to verify proper functionality. This testing should be performed frequently enough for the test to reflect the system's current status, but not so often that people begin to ignore the alerts.
When things go awry
But what happens if an internal notification system fails? If the failure were to occur during an actual emergency, then the organization's immediate course of action should be to disseminate the information in any way possible. After all, time is usually of the essence. Having an alternative method of communication in place will help an organization avoid scrambling once a system goes down. If, for example, the organization uses an automated text message-based system, it might also distribute a call tree to employees to have as a backup.
Emergency call trees may be a little more rudimentary than an automated system, but as long as there are working phone lines, they are a reliable option. Rather than trying to improvise an organized tree on the fly, having one in place and accessible to staff can help ensure that everyone is contacted in a reasonably timely manner.
If a mass notification system fails during a routine test, then the failure can be handled differently because there is not an immediate need to convey critically important information. There are two things that must be done in such a situation.
First and foremost, the organization needs to review its contingency plans. There should already be a backup plan in place for the dissemination of critical information if the primary internal notification system fails. Being that the primary system is not working, everyone involved needs to know what the backup plan is, and what their role will be should an emergency occur. This would be an opportune moment to establish or test a call tree, if that is the backup plan of choice.
The second thing that the organization must do is to diagnose the cause of the failure. The failure could be tied to something as simple as an internet outage, or the underlying cause may be more complex. Regardless, the problem must be diagnosed and remediated in an expedited manner. From there, the organization should review the problem and its fix, and begin discussing measures that might prevent the problem from occurring in the future.