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Active shooter? Wildfires? HR's role in emergency notification systems

Some HR departments have responsibility for notifying employees in a crisis, whether a natural disaster or man-made. They select, buy and deploy the emergency alert tools.

An outbreak of wildfires near Kawasaki Motors Corp. in Orange County, Calif., had the attention of Tom Porter, the firm's HR director. He was driving on a freeway when an evacuation alert came in on his mobile phone. Porter pulled his car over and called the office.

Porter asked an HRIS employee to identify the employees living in affected areas. There were 12. A prepared message was sent through AlertMedia, Kawasaki's emergency notification systems provider. The notification arrived via voice, text, email and an AlertMedia app.

Kawasaki, which makes motorcycles, watercraft and other products, was still new to AlertMedia. It had not set up the system's geofencing to automate the affected employee list. That would have sped up the notification process. But the alert was still swift, taking about 15 minutes from the time Porter acted.

Affected employees were told to "leave work immediately" to care for family and property. They would not be charged for the time away from work.

Part of a rare group

Porter, who recently retired from Kawasaki, is part of a rare group.

HR departments that take responsibility for emergency notification systems are a minority. The system managers are usually security or facilities management. But HR's role in selecting, budgeting and managing emergency alerts may be increasing.

"HR is either becoming a strong influencer or, at times, direct business buyer" of emergency alert systems, said Sanjay Saini, SVP and general manager of BlackBerry AtHoc, that firm's crisis communications platform.

One mass notification vendor, Everbridge, estimated that 60% of its users who manage the emergency notification systems are in the areas of business continuity, emergency preparedness and management functions. Another 30% are within the corporate security area, and the remaining 10% are a mix of HR, health, safety and operations areas.

Saini said a perception that there's a rise in events that may trigger a crisis alert is driving adoption. But the needs of organizations are evolving as well, he said. Firms want to know where their employees are and if they are safe.

Employees blitzed during emergency

Emergency notification systems may blitz employees with notifications on every available channel. Some may even connect to building systems that flash warning lights. They are usually loaded with prepared messages for every possible emergency. Affected employees may receive immediate guidance as well, such as which exit to head to in a fire.

What we're talking about is the safety of the team members and their families.
Tom PorterHR director, Kawasaki Motors Corp., recently retired

The communication is two-way, so employers can learn the status of their employees. The alerting services may curate alerts, based on customer needs.

If HR isn't directly managing these systems, it's often a principal advocate for them.

"HR deals with the people, and this is about their safety," Porter said. "What we're talking about is the safety of the team members and their families."

Notification systems set up for speed

Most of the emergency notification systems managers are outside of HR, such as Steve Bryson, facilities manager at Sumitomo Corp. of America, a general trading firm. The company uses BlackBerry's AtHoc. He nonetheless works closely with HR, which he described as a major advocate for the system.

These mass notification systems are set up for speed but also to get an employee's attention. One feature in the AtHoc system is a desktop pop-up that "can't be ignored." It is persistent until the employee acknowledges it. This is in addition to the other alerts that may be arriving via email and cellphone, Bryson said.

The system uses templates for scenarios, such as weather, transportation or fire issues. The alert wording is ready. Delivery options may be preset. "Speed is important," Bryson said.

Another AlertMedia user is Lindsay Gaal, director of HR at Friedman LLP, an accounting, tax and business consulting firm. It was HR's job to pick a vendor, implement the system and roll it out for the firm, she said.

Gaal sees the responsibility for emergency alerts as a natural one for HR departments.

HR is not only the "primary caretaker," Gaal said, "it is really the driving force of communication in an organization."

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