Category: Business continuity

Would your business stay afloat?

Would your business stay afloat?

We recently presented at the Resilient Scotland Conference in Edinburgh – our topic was the importance of considering potential impacts from flooding in your business continuity plan. Sadly, our topic was all too topical, with Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis wreaking havoc over recent weeks, so now seems like a good time to re-iterate some of the points we discussed. Let’s set the scene a bit on WHY this topic is one you all need to consider.

2nd wettest summer on record for parts of the UK
Businesses are now more likely to suffer from a flood than a fire
30cm of moving water is enough to float a car
74% of drivers would risk driving through flood water
Major infrastructure repairs may still be going on 12 months later

Perspectives on flooding …

Those of you who know me personally will know that as well as my current role with Alert Cascade, I also have over 20 years experience across the fire service and local police force. So, whilst I’m not a flood expert per se, I’m in the unique position of being able to talk about the organisational impact of flooding from 3 very different viewpoints:

I was fortunate/unfortunate enough to be working with Lincolnshire Police during the Boston Floods in 2013. For those of you who don’t know where Boston is, it’s a town and small port in Lincolnshire, on the east coast of England, with a population of around 70,000. Now, the Boston Floods were part of a larger story – from early December 2013 through to February 2014, the UK experienced a spell of severe weather with a series of storms that had widespread impacts.

Immediately before the tidal surge we’re going to look at, storms led to Scotland’s rail network being shut down, 100,000 homes were without power, and there were flight cancellations at Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen airports. The tidal surge that affected Boston was felt along the whole of the east coast of England, and was the largest surge since the “great storm” of 1953. But just looking at the level of impact flooding had in that one town, you can see the levels of devastation that were caused:

  • 5.2 metre tidal surge
  • 20 kilometres of flood defences overtopped
  • River Haven breached in 4 separate locations
  • 720 commercial & residential properties flooded
  • 1,700 hectares of agricultural land flooded
  • 350 tonnes of waste removed during clean up
  • £8.1 million of damage to infrastructure

The Boston Floods had a very fast moving timeline – the initial early warnings came in on 2nd and 3rd December, and at that time, this was deemed to be a relatively low risk event – “very low likelihood of significant coastal impacts on the east coast of England”.

Over the course of the next 48 hours, this moved to an “amber” threat level for Lincolnshire, and by 11.05am on Thursday 5th December, Northern Power Grid had declared a major incident, Lincolnshire Police had recorded multiple weather related incidents in quick succession and an “emergency” had been declared, as defined by the Civil Contingencies Act.

In practical terms, that meant all available resources were mobilised – Lincolnshire Police were working on traffic management, evacuation support and public safety, the Fire and Rescue Service were leading flood rescue and high volume pumping, early school closures were initiated, evacuation of vulnerable locations began, and military assistance was granted to support evacuation. By 2.30pm, the threat level was raised to “Red” and the Environment Agency issued severe flood warnings to 12,300 properties in and around Boston. By 4pm, 35,000 properties in the north of Lincolnshire were without power. At 8.32pm, the first critical high tide hits Boston … and that’s when you start to see scenes like the one in the photos here:

What’s really noticeable if you look at this timeline, is the recovery phase … 2 days of flooding led to 3 months of recovery time. If your business, or more importantly your people, were based here, how would this affect you?

The Boston floods viewpoint is very much a “boots on the ground” perspective, but as I mentioned at the outset, I’m also the Director of a business that organisations around the globe rely on to provide a mission critical, 24/7/365 service. We’re a software as a service company, so as you’d expect, our data centres, servers, the platform itself etc are truly resilient – we wouldn’t be in business if they weren’t.

But our business isn’t just about our software, it’s about our people. We’re a diverse organisation, with people based in different locations and having different needs. For us, the biggest part of our flood risk planning has been breaking it down and making it more granular – there’s no one size fits all and no magic want unfortunately, but the biggest piece of work we had to do was information gathering. You wouldn’t have offices in 5 different places then use a generic business continuity plan across all 5 locations (or at least I hope you wouldn’t!), and having a flood plan as part of your BCP is no different. I talked about the tidal surge causing coastal flooding in Boston, but here in the UK we also have river flooding, surface water flooding, groundwater flooding and sewer flooding.

For our own business, we’ve set up some basic “checkpoints” for things we need to consider internally when we’re dealing with flooding. Some of them probably seem like common sense, but having them documented in our plans means we’re leaving as little as possible to chance. And some of our checkpoints are there because we’ve learnt from past experiences (both our own, and those of our customers).

For example, did you know that in some areas it’s a deliberate policy for council car parks to be built on flood planes so they have an area available to divert water to if needed? So when you’re thinking about commuters and whether they will be able to get to work OK, it’s not as simple as just checking the roads are open or the trains are running – will they be able to park at the train station in the first place? Another valuable point for us is remembering that our staff have responsibilities outside of the workplace; much like the advice we’re seeing from the BCI about the COVID-19 outbreak, one of our key checkpoints is preparing for the fact that flooding can lead to school closures, which leads to staff members needing time away from work or flexible working arrangements at short notice. This doesn’t just affect those specific staff – it puts increased pressure on remaining staff who will probably have increased workloads in the short term, so our plans include ways we can help our teams deal with that pressure.

A vital part of our planning is to look much wider than our own office environment –  it’s not uncommon for residents and businesses to be asked not to flush toilets during the immediate aftermath of a flood, as the local authorities work to ensure the infrastructure is stable. So, our staff may be able to get to work, our offices may be accessible, power is on etc, but there are no welfare facilities available for them to use. On the flip side, staff may have no toilets, showers or washing machines at home, or may be dealing with a huge amount of stress. During the Boston Floods of 2013, approximately 40% of homes that were flooded were uninsured against that risk. We’re not here to be “big brother” and know every detail of our people’s private lives, but we do have to be realistic that staff having to deal with that level of stress in their personal lives are unlikely to be thinking about work as their top priority … and rightly so.

From our perspective, all severe weather has the potential to impact our people, but the impact of flooding can be much more wide reaching, much more variable, and much more long lasting. So, rather than having a a single fairly static flood plan (like we would maybe do for an internal IT issue), we have lots of mini plans that cover each specific risk element that sits under the flood umbrella, allowing us to quickly pivot as the situation changes. All of this though, relies on accurate information and regular communication with your staff – plans that aren’t communicated to anybody won’t get you very far!

The final perspective to share with you, is that of the people who use our mass notification and incident management solutions. We’re extremely lucky that because of the services we provide, we have the opportunity to learn from our customers and their experiences. We work with organisations around the globe, as well as providing communications support for organisations whose role involves being deployed to provide assistance abroad during natural disasters. So when we’re doing quarterly account reviews, we get to see the whole picture, not just what’s in the news. In 2019, 64.8% of UK customer deployments of the Alert Cascade mass notification service related to severe weather events. Looking at customers who we specifically knew had been affected by flooding of any type or scale, there are some common themes that emerged when we spoke with them.

TECHNOLOGY

Obviously, these are Alert Cascade customers, so we know they have a mass notification system in place, but more than that, they had access to a good range of other technology that allowed them to work more flexibly to minimise the effects of flooding. The ability to work from home (or another safe location) was vital; we often saw organisations proactively advising staff to work from home rather than to risk driving in potentially unsafe conditions and this was really aided by the fact that they had contingency plans they could activate to allow flexible working.

COMMUNICATION & TEAM WORK

These two themes overlapped in a lot of places. Overall, customers told us there was a real sense of working together to keep things moving, and that constant communication was key to this. It was important that communication was targeted though, and not “one size fits all”. Whilst all staff messaging worked well for initial information sharing, customers quickly moved to being more strategic with their notifications; two way messaging was vital as it enabled organisations to share information quickly and easily but also to gather meaningful responses from the recipients, and use those responses to make informed decisions about the way forward.  Those of you who heard our Resilient Scotland presentation last year might remember that I spoke about the fact that nobody is resilient in isolation, and that’s really what came out here as well; during an incident, feedback was there was a heightened awareness of just how much each area relies upon, and interacts with, other areas within the business.

RELIABLE WEATHER INFO

We live in a very interconnected world, and some staff relied on social media for information rather than trusted sources. This had two effects – firstly, that staff were forming opinions and making assumptions about whether the office would be open based on incorrect information. Secondly, frequent misinformation and hyperbole about the severity of local weather caused some staff to be totally unaware when there was a genuine issue; they were so used to seeing/hearing about “The worst storm for XXX years” that they ignored weather reports in general. Roughly 5.2 million business and residential premises in the UK (one in six) are at a significant risk of flooding, and are eligible to receive free flood warning alerts, but only 41% of those occupiers have signed up to the service. When it comes to business continuity, this meant that sometimes it was a case of the blind leading the blind as no-one in the teams responsible for managing an incident had signed up for the free alerts. A major learning point for some of our customers was that the business continuity or resilience team need to be in the know about potential weather related incidents, and many have now made it standard practice that their team members are signed up for these alerts.

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE

Plans written by people who don’t know the area, without involving people “on the ground”, tended to either have large knowledge gaps, or to be too complex because they attempted to cover every single possibility … no matter how remote the chance of it happening. When we spoke to more enterprise level customers, we received some feedback that although flood plans were in place, they tended to be technical in nature and overly focused on systems and processes whilst often missing what some staff saw as common sense points. The best advice we can give here is to actively involve the people who will be affected by your plans in the actual planning; not only will this give you valuable local information, it will help those staff take ownership of your resilience processes. Although organisational resilience and business continuity teams will often lead the way, resilience is everyone’s responsibility.

STAFF CONTACT DATA

This was the biggest negative that came out of the feedback we received. Without up to date contact data, perfect plans and clear, concise communication went nowhere. We saw some customers attempting to carry out data imports mid incident as it quickly became apparent that contact data had not been maintained. System wise, there are no restrictions on the number of data imports our customers can carry out, and we offer 6 different data maintenance options off the shelf, so there are no technical reasons why data isn’t kept up to date. When we carry out our quarterly reviews, we often score ten out of ten for our data maintenance ease of use, and most imports take under ten minutes, so it isn’t that this is a complex process that needs heavy resources. What sometimes seems to happen is that data maintenance is seen as a low priority task; if a mass notification system is seen as an insurance policy, then some organisations gamble on never having to use it and therefore keeping it up to date isn’t high on their list of “Important things to do today”. Some customers also gave us feedback that internal silos caused them problems – data maintenance was seen as someone else’s job (usually the HR team). So even though the business continuity team are relying on being able to use that contact data in an emergency, they’re not necessarily working with HR to make it clear how important it is.

RESPONSIBILITY

Flooding was rarely a specific part of the Business Continuity Plan, so sometimes no-one knew whose job it was to monitor for severe weather. Even when someone was actively monitoring for flood alerts, there was still a grey area about when to invoke a BCP, when to communicate with staff etc, and this sometimes meant nobody actually took the decision to invoke a plan. This was particularly true when it was a low level incident i.e. surface water flooding.

TECHNOLOGY

Obviously, these are Alert Cascade customers, so we know they have a mass notification system in place, but more than that, they had access to a good range of other technology that allowed them to work more flexibly to minimise the effects of flooding. The ability to work from home (or another safe location) was vital; we often saw organisations proactively advising staff to work from home rather than to risk driving in potentially unsafe conditions and this was really aided by the fact that they had contingency plans they could activate to allow flexible working.

COMMUNICATION & TEAM WORK

These two themes overlapped in a lot of places. Overall, customers told us there was a real sense of working together to keep things moving, and that constant communication was key to this. It was important that communication was targeted though, and not “one size fits all”. Whilst all staff messaging worked well for initial information sharing, customers quickly moved to being more strategic with their notifications; two way messaging was vital as it enabled organisations to share information quickly and easily but also to gather meaningful responses from the recipients, and use those responses to make informed decisions about the way forward.  Those of you who heard our Resilient Scotland presentation last year might remember that I spoke about the fact that nobody is resilient in isolation, and that’s really what came out here as well; during an incident, feedback was there was a heightened awareness of just how much each area relies upon, and interacts with, other areas within the business.

RELIABLE WEATHER INFO

We live in a very interconnected world, and some staff relied on social media for information rather than trusted sources. This had two effects – firstly, that staff were forming opinions and making assumptions about whether the office would be open based on incorrect information. Secondly, frequent misinformation and hyperbole about the severity of local weather caused some staff to be totally unaware when there was a genuine issue; they were so used to seeing/hearing about “The worst storm for XXX years” that they ignored weather reports in general. Roughly 5.2 million business and residential premises in the UK (one in six) are at a significant risk of flooding, and are eligible to receive free flood warning alerts, but only 41% of those occupiers have signed up to the service. When it comes to business continuity, this meant that sometimes it was a case of the blind leading the blind as no-one in the teams responsible for managing an incident had signed up for the free alerts. A major learning point for some of our customers was that the business continuity or resilience team need to be in the know about potential weather related incidents, and many have now made it standard practice that their team members are signed up for these alerts.

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE

Plans written by people who don’t know the area, without involving people “on the ground”, tended to either have large knowledge gaps, or to be too complex because they attempted to cover every single possibility … no matter how remote the chance of it happening. When we spoke to more enterprise level customers, we received some feedback that although flood plans were in place, they tended to be technical in nature and overly focused on systems and processes whilst often missing what some staff saw as common sense points. The best advice we can give here is to actively involve the people who will be affected by your plans in the actual planning; not only will this give you valuable local information, it will help those staff take ownership of your resilience processes. Although organisational resilience and business continuity teams will often lead the way, resilience is everyone’s responsibility.

STAFF CONTACT DATA

This was the biggest negative that came out of the feedback we received. Without up to date contact data, perfect plans and clear, concise communication went nowhere. We saw some customers attempting to carry out data imports mid incident as it quickly became apparent that contact data had not been maintained. System wise, there are no restrictions on the number of data imports our customers can carry out, and we offer 6 different data maintenance options off the shelf, so there are no technical reasons why data isn’t kept up to date. When we carry out our quarterly reviews, we often score ten out of ten for our data maintenance ease of use, and most imports take under ten minutes, so it isn’t that this is a complex process that needs heavy resources. What sometimes seems to happen is that data maintenance is seen as a low priority task; if a mass notification system is seen as an insurance policy, then some organisations gamble on never having to use it and therefore keeping it up to date isn’t high on their list of “Important things to do today”. Some customers also gave us feedback that internal silos caused them problems – data maintenance was seen as someone else’s job (usually the HR team). So even though the business continuity team are relying on being able to use that contact data in an emergency, they’re not necessarily working with HR to make it clear how important it is.

RESPONSIBILITY

Flooding was rarely a specific part of the Business Continuity Plan, so sometimes no-one knew whose job it was to monitor for severe weather. Even when someone was actively monitoring for flood alerts, there was still a grey area about when to invoke a BCP, when to communicate with staff etc, and this sometimes meant nobody actually took the decision to invoke a plan. This was particularly true when it was a low level incident i.e. surface water flooding.

3 very different perspectives … working in the emergency services on the ground in a major incident and seeing first hand how it affected people and businesses, being responsible for ensuring my own organisation can continue to provide mission critical services to customers, and seeing those same customers dealing with flooding affecting their organisation. Across all 3 perspectives though, there are some clear commonalities and things it is worth considering in your own organisations.

Most importantly, your people are your primary asset. Flood plans that focus on protecting your premises will not actually protect your business. You need to look wider than that – your premises may be hunky dory, but can your people get to them safely? Do they need extra support? Have you given them the tools they need?

Secondly – the aftermath requires just as much planning as the actual incident. Water recedes and drains away but your staff will be dealing with road closures, train delays and high levels of stress for months to come.

Communication and collaboration are vital – allow your staff to feedback into your plan, and give them a route to forward on new information during an incident. You may know that there’s a flood warning for the region, but your staff may know that a specific road has a diversion in place, or that there’s standing water on a certain street.

And finally – iteration is your goal here, not perfection. Plans should be continually refined and improved, not written once and reviewed annually. You wouldn’t have a cyber risk analysis that stayed static for 12 months, so why should your flood plan?

Turning plans into practice with Alert Cascade …

5 simple steps to using a mass notification tool as part of your business continuity program

5 simple steps to using a mass notification tool as part of your business continuity program

Mass notification is a broad term; depending on who you’re talking with, it can mean anything from a one way text blast, right up to a multi-channel two way communication system with all the bells and whistles … or anything in between.

With that being said, just because something qualifies as a mass communication tool, it doesn’t mean it’s suitable to use as part of your business continuity program. Emergency communication systems have the potential to really improve your organisational resilience, but they have to be fit for the purpose you are using them for. Putting it bluntly:

•  SMS on its own is not resilient enough for a BC tool; single channel communications introduce a single point of failure.

•  WhatsApp groups managed by individuals often circumvent your internal data protection policies; the chat messages might be encrypted, but personal data is being stored and managed on individual handsets with no controls in place.

• Tools that integrate 100% with your own infrastructure will in theory reduce the resource required to maintain them; in reality they are introducing a reliance on your own systems … and it might be your systems that are down.

Once you have a suitable tool in place, the next step is making it an integral part of your business continuity planning:

TEST, TEST, TEST

Regular testing is a must. Unless you’re really unlucky, you won’t be having a business disruption every day of the year. It’s entirely possible that you won’t have a live incident for weeks or months at a time, so keep everyone’s knowledge fresh by having a regular test schedule, and sticking to it.

USE YOUR TESTING FOR MORE THAN JUST SYSTEM TESTING

This shouldn’t be a tick box exercise. A one way text message proves your service works but that’s all it does. Send test messages across all channels, and make it a two way message. That way, you are checking you have valid contact data for everyone, you are setting recipient expectations correctly for what to expect during a live incident, and you are testing their ability to understand the instructions you’re giving and respond to them appropriately. It’s much more effective to test these things now, than to find out you have a problem during a live incident.

KEEP YOUR MESSAGING CONSISTENT

Don’t forget about inbound routes. If you have a staff information line, make sure it’s updated whenever you send outbound messages. If you have an intranet that you can update, make sure you do this. Otherwise, you risk causing confusion.

Set up an “all clear” step in your process

Most communications plans focus on what happens during the actual disruption, but when you’re ready to return to “business as usual”, its equally important to communicate that message. Clearly and concisely letting everyone know that no further messages will be sent regarding this incident keeps everyone on the same page.

FINALLY ...

Whatever tool you’ve chosen, don’t be afraid to use it! Events that affect your IT infrastructure or hurt your productivity can be just as disruptive as disasters and major incidents. Similarly, you may not be affected by the actual incident itself, but the aftermath could cause you serious problems. If something has the potential to cause a disruption for you (large or small), you should be communicating about it.

We’re lucky enough to work with organisations of all shapes and sizes, giving us a unique insight into some really simple steps you can take to use communications effectively as part of your resilience strategy.

Resilient Communications Made Easy – Part 5

What’s the solution for making resilient communications easy?

We’ve asked a lot of questions in this series of articles, and discussed some of the roadblocks we’ve seen our customers face:

We’ve also talked about the potential answers to those questions, and how we’ve seen people overcome those barriers:

  • Diversity from beginning to end – multiple ways to access your communications service.
  • Think about using SMS texts and voice calls to trigger alerts, as well as using a web dashboard.
  • What happens if you don’t have internet access at your end because of the situation you are trying to handle?
  • Just because you are using cloud based software, don’t restrict yourself to something you can ONLY access via the cloud.

The same goes for data maintenance. This is a really key point that bears repeating – OUR service is only as good as YOUR data. Whatever solution you choose, it should be clearly part of your processes and workflows and you should be able to maintain it in the way that works best for you. Only have a small contact list and want to manage via Excel? It’s possible. Have something more complex, and don’t want someone physically uploading a spreadsheet? It’s possible. Have a fluid workforce and want real time updates between your HR system and a mass notification service? It’s possible.

  • Think inbound as well as outbound.
  • An information hotline with nailed line capacity guaranteeing no engaged tones for you callers can be just as valuable as a suite of outbound tools.
  • If you are going to use outbound messaging, don’t restrict yourself to one channel.
  • Think about the diversity of the people you are communicating with, as well as reducing reliance in key areas and creating single points of failure.
  • If you rely on one communication channel, what are you going to do when that channel isn’t available?
  • Audio Noticeboard
  • Mass Notification
  • Incident Connect
  • On Call
  • Situation Tracker
  • Public Notification

Clearly, we are biased, hence this last point! But in all seriousness, resilient communication tools are important to all organisations, and they don’t need to be overly complicated or overly expensive. They just have to give you what you need, when you need it.

Alert Cascade – it does what it says on the tin!

Ready to find out more? We would love to talk to you about how we can help!

Resilient Communications Made Easy – Part 4

What stops you using resilient communications?

Once you have buy in, and you’ve gone ahead and implemented some kind of resilient communication methods, that’s not the end of the story. Whether you went for a simple information hotline or an enterprise level mass communication system, you have to actually USE those communication methods. You’d think that would go without saying, but sadly not!

When you’re talking about business continuity, or disaster recovery, the importance of testing your plans is hammered home at every stage. Otherwise, when it comes to a real event, how do you know your plans will work the way you think they will? A resilient communication system is no different. So why don’t people do it?

OVER-COMPLICATED INTERNAL PROCESSES

This is a big one, and one that we hear a lot – nobody actually knows who is responsible for sending a message. And nobody wants to be responsible for sending the message! The business continuity plan focuses on facilities issues, and how to fail over to a disaster recovery site, but forgets to mention the communications side of things.

How and when do you actually communicate with staff to tell them you’re failing over to an alternative site because of an emergency? Who has the authority to send that message out? The recovery site on it’s own is not going to do you any good without anyone manning it … it’s vital to keep your processes simple and cohesive.

This goes back to one of our earlier points – nobody is resilient in isolation. A resilient communications service is great. A DR service is great. But if your processes aren’t working together, the results will not be great!

OVER-COMPLICATED IN GENERAL!

With a bit of luck, you won’t be having to use a resilient communications process every day of the week. If you do, you probably have bigger things to worry about …. but bearing in mind you may not be using your resilient communications for weeks or months at a time, whatever system or process you implement has to be simple enough that you don’t need to invest in weeks of training, and there’s no “fear factor” when you come to use it. It is stressful enough being the person pushing the button without having to go through 20 steps to do it when you haven’t been near the system for 6 months.

Where possible, if you’re using an automated system, have templates set up ready for quick deployment. They don’t have to be complicated, and you can add incident specific content on the fly, but try and have the bare bones set up so it’s one less thing to do in the head of battle. But don’t go to the other extreme – 100 templates to choose from is not going to help anyone. Remember the mantra, KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid!

Where possible, keep the nomenclature and labelling the same across all of your systems and processes. Don’t call something “Home Cell” in your HR system then “Personal Mobile” in your mass communication system and something different again in your business continuity plan. Consistency is key to making your system simple.

LACK OF CONFIDENCE IN DATA INTEGRITY

And finally we come onto what is a real show stopper for some people – data quality or integrity. The latest Business Continuity Institute report shows that 41% of organisations that use an emergency notification service have problems with keeping the contact data they use up to date. Our service is only as good as your data, so this really needs to be addressed.

There is no excuse for this; quite apart from the potential ramifications of you contacting someone on a personal mobile when they left your business last year, in this day and age there is no excuse for not keeping your data sets in sync. This goes back to nobody being resilient in isolation – talk to each other!

Your Business Continuity team isn’t the only team that needs to be involved in choosing an emergency notification service – what about HR? Usually, they’re the ones in charge of the data that you want to use. Ask questions of your potential supplier – be up front with them. This is where our data is and what we have available; what can you recommend? What’s the best way for us to make this work? At the end of the day, we have a vested interest in making sure you have a good experience – involve us, as well as your own teams.

And finally, test, test, test. Don’t wait until you have a real emergency to find out you have our of date phone numbers, especially if you are lucky enough to only have one emergency a year.

Resilient Communications Made Easy – Part 3

What stops you investing in resilient communications?

There are so many myths around implementing communication plans! We’ve been working in this sector for over 20 years – back in the day, if you needed to communicate with a large group of people, you’d have a manual call tree and you’d tell your team “You ring 10, you ring 10, you ring 10”. It would take forever, you had to make multiple repeat calls because people didn’t answer, and you had no reporting.

Then, we moved on to automated calls, installing boxes and lines to ring people instead. It was faster, but still very limited, and not the cheapest solution. We even had a special formula for working out how many phone lines you needed to rent so that you could call your staff in under an hour…

Now, technology has moved on again. We can place thousands of simultaneous SMS texts, voice calls and emails at the click of a mouse. Data tends to be stored in the cloud rather than on premise, and you can access your communication services from any internet enabled device.

But, we still see people running into roadblocks internally and finding it difficult to get a resilient communication plan implemented. Technology has moved on, but in some cases, the mindset hasn’t. Let’s take a look at the top 3 barriers we still hear about:

Budget and cost restraints

The first thing we’d say here is how much does it cost you not to communicate? And not just in financial terms. What is the cost of someone being injured when you could have prevented it? The second thing we’d say is not every organisation needs the fanciest piece of kit going.

We work with companies who are just beginning to think about a crisis communications plan. All they really want is an easy reliable way for staff to get updates or collect critical information. That doesn’t have to be outbound communication – what about an inbound information hotline that you can update via an SMS text, a voice call or via a web dashboard?

Resilient communication doesn’t have to be complicated and expensive. It can be simple, straightforward and cost effective. With all the inter connectivity and reliance that we’ve talked about, what could be simpler than giving staff a dedicated phone number that they can ring 24/7/36 to hear the latest update? It’s not perfect, but it’s a million times better than having nothing at all.

Ongoing resource requirements

Once you get into the realms of thinking that maybe an automated communication service is the right solution for you, then we start hearing concerns about resources. How much work is it going to be to keep it up to date? Do I need to spend hours going to a dedicated online “university” to learn how this system works? Will I then need to spend more hours every month keeping the service ticking over?

Ongoing resource requirements … this can be a real showstopper for some companies. It’s an unknown and unquantifiable thing, and that really doesn’t work when you are trying to sell the idea internally. The key here is breaking it down and asking questions. First, work out what your “must have” requirements are. They’re usually simpler than you think. Don’t fall for the sales person’s patter (and we can say that!) – you can add extra functions and modules later, when your own processes are more mature or when your needs have changed. You don’t usually need every bell and whistle from day one.

We’re a mass communications company, and even we would tell you to keep it simple. If you think that you’re going to need an ongoing dedicated resource to look after your system, then you haven’t chosen the right system for you.

Buy in – what does this give me personally?

And finally – people who don’t see the value of what you’re proposing. “What do resilient communications do for me personally?”. This goes back to box ticking. Procurement teams sometimes focus on cost rather than value; yes, you’re paying an annual subscription fee. But you’re also saving x, y and z by not having to manually call people to tell them you’ve closed the office. If you stop and think about it, a resilient communication service will bring benefits for everyone. You might just have to frame the information in a different way.

Some of the benefits are intangible. To give you an example, the customers who get the most benefit from Alert Cascade are those who really think about what resilience means to them as an organisation – it isn’t always the traditional business continuity use case.

Our customers deployed Alert Cascade multiple times during the tragic events of the Manchester arena bombing. Checking that staff are safe, letting people know about travel disruptions etc are unfortunately all standard use cases for a service like ours. But some customers went further. They used our service heavily in the aftermath to remind staff about welfare services and employee helplines that were available for people who were struggling. They sent messages reminding colleagues in other locations that staff based in Manchester may be back at work, but the aftermath was still taking its toll. They really took their organisational resilience to the next level by using Alert Cascade to continue to mitigate and manage the effects of that tragic incident long after the incident itself was over.

Now, that use case might not fit for every organisation or business culture. What we’re really saying here is if you are struggling to get buy in internally, think outside the box. Resilient communications don’t just bring benefits during a major incident, they enhance your organisational resilience in so many other ways.

Resilient Communications Made Easy – Part 2

What do we mean by resilient communications?

In our previous article, we learnt that we can’t be resilient in isolation. We need to collaborate, and and we need to communicate effectively with people, regardless of what’s happening around us. But what do we mean by “resilient communications”? What makes a communication method resilient?

Infrastructure

The obvious answer, and the one that most people think about first, is infrastructure. In a telecoms and email world, that means no grey routing. Don’t send SMS text messages half way round the world just to save a few pence. Those pennies are not worth what it will cost if you can’t communicate with your people when you need to!

A resilient infrastructure also means thinking about inter-dependencies and using multiple carriers and gateways. The communication methods that you use should be as direct as possible. Use suppliers who offer direct connections to networks. Using re-sellers and international distributors instead of direct local connections introduces unnecessary layers of reliance into your communications infrastructure.

Diversity at every stage

If you speak with people that you work with, how many prefer receiving an SMS instead of a voice call? Who prefers receiving a social media chat instead of an SMS? Who just hates being contacted at all?! You must consider the needs of the people you are communicating with, not just your needs as the message sender.

Diversity of communication methods isn’t just important in terms of meeting your recipient’s needs. We are regularly asked whether we supply an SMS system they can use for business continuity. Yes, we use SMS as PART of our solution, but we would never advocate using is as the WHOLE solution.

SMS is great … until it’s not. This could be because international traffic is ringfenced to ease capacity issues during a crisis, and you’ve gone with the cheapest option on the market that bounces it’s SMS through 10 different countries to keep the rates low. Or the demographic you’re communicating with rarely uses SMS and prefers a voice call. Or the SMS service just isn’t available. No matter who your carrier is, SMS is only available on an “as is” basis, there are no guarantees. So, using multiple communication channels is the best way to ensure your message gets through.

Ease of use – the human element

Communications technology on its own will never be truly resilient because it relies on human interactions. To make your communications as resilient as possible, you need to overcome that human element as much as possible.

We’ve touched briefly on this already; people are people and we all communicate and work in different ways. So, let’s expand that idea – the way you communicate with people during a crisis needs to simple and structured. We’ve already said that nobody is resilient in isolation, and for communications, this means thinking about your people before implementing a system or process. What do they really need, and what will they use regularly?

A fantastic mass communication system with all the bells and whistles won’t help you with resilient communication methods it’s never used because it’s more complex than you need, with multiple unnecessary features. It becomes the elephant in the room. Don’t just think about software, hardware and processes – remember the people at the end of those processes.

Resilient Communications Made Easy – Part 1

Why are communications important to resilience?

First of all, let’s take a few minutes to answer the most obvious questions. What have communications got to do with resilience? What are you going to get out of this series of articles?

We work with people who need to keep their organisations running during business continuity disruptions, disaster recovery events, and sometimes traumatic situations. Those events can range from severe weather, to reputational crises caused by data breaches, to facilities issues, terror attacks and infrastructure breakdowns … the list goes on.

The one commonality that those situations have is that effective communication plays a key part in mitigating the impact. So, we’re going to focus on overcoming common roadblocks to implementing resilient communication solutions and ensuring that you can keep your people safe, informed and connected by communicating effectively.

Before we start talking about how to go ahead and implement actual solutions, first we need to be really clear on why communications are so important to resilience.

1) Resilience is a group activity

Resilience is all about overcoming reliance. Because we live in an interconnected world, everything we do affects, and is affected by, other people. That’s equally true in the business world or in any other working environment that you can think of. Whenever we carry out our day to day tasks, we are reliant to some extent on someone, or something else.

Sending an email to a customer? We’re relying on the device we’re using, the email provider we’ve chosen, our internet supplier … and the recipient’s device, email provider and internet supplier. And in turn, they are all relying on someone else as well. So, your resilience is our resilience. Resilience has to be a group activity.

2) Nobody is resilient in isolation

Resilience is not a tick box exercise. Let’s say you’ve bought some software that tells you it’s going to provide you with a business continuity plan. Great, automatically a big tick! All of a sudden we hear “I’m resilient! I’m business continuity compliant!”. Sometimes we even hear “I’ve bought a mass communication system – I’ve never used it, or tested it, but I’ve bought it so I’m all good…”

Going back to our first point about reliance, you may have bought the most expensive piece of kit on the market with a 100% SLA. But 100% of nothing is nothing if that piece of kit can’t work because it relies on something else. How many people reading right now have been affected by an O2, Vodafone or WhatsApp outage?

3) True collaboration requires communication

All of this matters because true collaboration requires communication. We’ve established that we can’t be resilient in isolation; we need to work with colleagues, suppliers and customers. If we don’t communicate effectively as part of those relationships, the consequences can be dire. It’s not always just as simple as it might cause a minor blip in your business performance.

Lack of communication can cause reputational damage that you can’t recover from. It can cause massive financial penalties if you don’t communicate with the right people at the right time. Not to put too fine a point on it, it may even lead to death or injury, depending on the situation you’re dealing with.


We know that we can’t be resilient on our own. Every action we take relies on someone or something else, and being able to communicate is a key part of working effectively with other people. Now, we need to find a reliable, resilient way to continue to communicate, regardless of what’s going on around us.

Mass notification services for the NHS and beyond!

Implementing a mass notification service can be a daunting task, and getting buy in from front line staff can be the trickiest piece of the puzzle!

Improving the way that you communicate with your staff isn’t just a case of finding a communications solution that gives you what you need technically. You need to be able to make it work from the ground up and get buy in from everyone involved – otherwise, no matter how good the platform is, you won’t get the results that you need. How many times have you heard comments like these, or even thought them yourself?

As a service provider, it’s very easy for us to tell you what we do and how well we do it, but as a customer, it’s not always easy to distinguish fact from fiction and salesman’s patter from genuine customer feedback. So today, we’re going to let one of our customers do the talking and tell you all about their experience of implementing Alert Cascade for the first time.

Meet Giles de Burgh, Head of Resilience for Great Western Hospital, Swindon Clinical Commissioning Group and Wiltshire Health and Care …

We work in complex organisations in a disparate system. Communication is a big issue for us. Some of the organisations we work with work from a single site, some have over 20 sites spread over a whole county. We work with many different IT and telecommunications systems and work with a broad spectrum of staff with varied IT competencies. As Head of Resilience for multiple organisations (NHS Acute, Community and Commissioning organisations), these issues create problems with communication and co-ordination that have at times seemed insurmountable. They are always at the top of the debrief list of problems.

Initially, we were looking at Alert Cascade for a direct replacement for the radio paging system we used to alert our on call teams. What we have found is that Alert Cascade provides a service that not only replaces our old radio paging system but also surpasses it in terms of functionality, usability and accessibility in every way. We have moved quickly at looking at Alert Cascade for our on call team to rolling this out across much larger parts of the organisations.

We have been implementing Alert Cascade over the last several weeks and there is a genuine buzz developing as a result. It is so flexible in the way you can set it up by team, location, role, training that we can have bespoke but linked systems for different parts of our organisation. Want to know if staff can make it to their shift in heavy snow? Want to know if staff can get to another base to cover a shift? Want to send a message to all on call staff currently on shift to report to the Control Room or dial into a teleconference? Simply want to tell people to stop using their personal email addresses during an incident and to use the incident email address single point of contact? This can all be achieved quickly and effectively.

It is a testament to the simple layout of Alert Cascade that through the training briefings we have been running over the last several weeks that people simply get it. Our Team Leaders are genuinely excited about being able to communicate easily with their teams to fill a vacant shift rather than spend hours calling around individuals, leaving messages on answer phones and then missing the call when someone calls back because they are on the phone to another member of staff. One of our team explained this process can sometimes take hours. With Alert Cascade, they will be able to send it out to the whole team and monitor the response. This aspect alone will save our teams time and money and enable them to spend more time focusing on patient care.

On top of all this, the team at Alert Cascade are excellent. They spend time developing a relationship with you, they listen to the problems you are trying to solve and often come back with pragmatic solutions or else explain very nicely that Alert Cascade already does that.

Myself and my teams are looking forward to working with Alert Cascade over the coming years. I have no doubt that communication will not be top of the debrief report next time we have an incident.

Five myths about using SMS for emergency notification

DESPITE THE RISE OF APP BASED MESSAGING, OLD SCHOOL SMS TEXTS STILL PROVIDE VALUABLE BENEFITS AS PART OF YOUR EMERGENCY MASS NOTIFICATION SERVICE KIT BAG.

•  The number of monthly texts sent has increased by more than 7,700% over the last decade

•  4.2 billion+ people text worldwide

•  Over 18.7 billion SMS texts are sent and received every day (not including app to app)

•  More than 98% of text messages from brands or businesses are read

•  90% of SMS text messages are read within three minutes

•  Approximately 95% of the UK adult population owns a personal mobile phone

•  99.6% of the UK has 2g coverage (sufficient to allow receipt of an SMS text message)

SO, WHY WOULDN’T YOU USE SMS TEXTS AS PART OF YOUR EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION SYSTEM?

It’s a good question … and there isn’t really a good answer. Alert Cascade has worked with customers to provide emergency and business continuity communications for almost two decades; technology has continued to evolve during that time, so where it may once have been the case that SMS text messaging wasn’t resilient enough for an emergency notification system, that no longer rings true.

MYTH NUMBER 1 – SMS MESSAGES HAVE A POOR DELIVERY RATE

There’s a grain of truth in this one. But as ever, the headline doesn’t tell the full story. Delivery problems are usually the result of poor telecoms routing, not the result of sending an SMS text. Some SMS providers opt to keep their prices low by using “grey routing” – this typically means that your messages are routed via another country, in order to avoid paying a fee to one of the telephony networks involved.

It’s not uncommon for grey routed SMS traffic to be bounced through a series of countries in order to avoid detection by the network operators. For you as the end user, this results in hold ups and lost messages. Even worse, because the routing is so convoluted, delivery and read receipts become almost useless as you may them receive hours, days or weeks late … or not receive them at all. So, you may never even know if your message has been received; far from ideal if you’re using SMS as part of your emergency mass notification service.

There’s an easy fix for this though – don’t use grey routing! As an OfCom registered telecoms company, Alert Cascade guarantees to only use white (i.e. legitimate) telecoms routing. We have direct links with the major UK networks, ensuring your messages are only ever sent through reliable, tier one connections. This guarantee is what allows us to give our customers a minimum uptime of 99.999%, and is why our customers are so confident in using our resilient SMS text messaging as part of their business continuity plan.

MYTH NUMBER 2 – WHEN SMS MESSAGES AREN’T DELIVERED, IT’S TRICKY TO FIND OUT WHY

As we established with Myth number 1, the problem here really isn’t SMS related – it’s cheap routing related. If you are using grey routing, there is no guarantee that you will get any kind of receipt back from the carriers involved, and even if you do get a receipt, there’s no guarantee that you will receive it in time for it to be of any use to you. What this means in layman’s terms is that you may send your business continuity message out to 100 staff via SMS text, but if you’re using grey routing, you may never know whether the message was delivered.

Alert Cascade SMS is guaranteed to run through white routes. This means that not only are we confident in delivering your message, we’re confident in telling you exactly what happened to your message and when. Our telco status also makes us different from our competitors – it means that when we tell you a message is delivered, we know it has been delivered to the individual handset, not just that the network has accepted delivery.

Message delivery statuses are available to all customers, all of the time, via our live reports dashboard. You can quickly and easily see whether messages are delivered (to the handset), pending (accepted by the network but not yet reached the handset), invalid (the phone number provided was invalid) or expired (if you set an expiration time and your SMS hasn’t been delivered by the end of that time, the message content will expire). Occasionally, we do still see the dreaded undelivered status, where the number provided is valid, the network has accepted the message, it’s been sat at pending for 48 hours but it hasn’t reached the handset. With our 99.999% SLA, the only time this happens is if the handset has been switched off or out of signal range for the entire 48 hour period.

So, if you use white routing, your message will be delivered. And if it hasn’t been, you will know whether that’s because the number is invalid, the message content has expired or the handset has been out of range for longer than 48 hours. Either way, it’s definitely not tricky to find this information!

MYTH NUMBER 3 – SMS TEXT MESSAGES ARE TOO SHORT TO BE USEFUL

The first SMS text message was sent on 3rd December 1992 (a 22 year old test engineer send “Merry Christmas” via the Vodafone network), and yes, at that time there were character limitations. And there still are character limitations today, depending on the handset you’re contacting and the region or network you’re working in. But let’s be realistic here – during a business continuity disruption, do you really need to send a message that’s longer than 1000 characters?

Alert Cascade SMS supports both the GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) and Unicode character sets; GSM was developed for use in Europe and includes the letters A to Z, numbers 0 to 9 and symbols such as @, ?, !, & etc, whereas Unicode supports more complex characters such as the Cyrillic alphabet and the Chinese, Arabic and Thai languages. In January 2017, there was even a request to add Klingon to the Unicode Registry, so whatever language you use, you can send your message by SMS.

MYTH NUMBER 4 – SMS TEXT MESSAGING CAN BE EXPENSIVE

Again, there is a grain of truth to this one, depending on your provider. If you’re being billed in arrears for your usage, you’re probably not getting the benefit of any bulk purchase discounts, whereas if you’ve pre-purchased an SMS bundle, your cost per message will be lower – a quick search of the internet will show you that if you buy a large enough bundle, you will pay around 3p per SMS text. That’s still not necessarily a comfortable position to be in though. When you’re dealing with an incident, the last thing you want to have to think about is “Do I have enough credit to send this message?”, or even worse, “What happens if I run out of credits part way through this incident?”.

Depending on the incident you’re dealing with, you may need to send one message to a select handful of people, or you may need to send numerous messages and updates to your entire staff headcount plus members of the public. From our point of view, the main point of a mass communication system is that you use it to communicate, and we don’t want to put hurdles in the way of you doing this. So, our business continuity pricing plans are all inclusive.

You pay your annual subscription fee for the platform, and the costs of your business continuity messaging are included within your subscription fee. This makes sense for you operationally as a customer (because now you’re free the use the platform whenever you need to without worrying about your budget), and it makes sense for us operationally as a provider (because now we’re free to focus our resources on support and development rather than monitoring usage and billing cycles).

MYTH NUMBER 5 – SMS TEXT MESSAGES ARE TEXT ONLY

Visual elements such as images, symbols, colours, fonts, tables etc are all great ways of conveying complex information to a diverse audience, and the phrase “SMS text” leads people to the natural conclusion that SMS messaging is all about the text content. Modern text messaging however, doesn’t have to rely just on traditional text content.

Our SMS for business continuity packages include the ability to add links to relevant documents, to create trackable web links, and to create surveys and forms to capture relevant data about the wellbeing of your contacts. Feature rich SMS enhances traditional text based content by helping you convey information in graphical format for a diverse contact list, provide additional instruction or detail via an infographic and consistently brand your messages so that contacts know it is a genuine alert.

Once you’ve got your audience’s attention by using an SMS that will be received by 95% of the population, read by 98% of the people who receive it, and opened by 90% of those people within three minutes, you can link out to somewhere more visually appealing and provide more detailed information.

So, you can benefit from the high open rates of SMS text messages and combine it with the complex visual elements usually found in emails by adding links and forms to your message … the best of both worlds.

SO I’LL ASK YOU AGAIN – WHY WOULDN’T YOU USE SMS TEXTS AS PART OF YOUR EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION SYSTEM?

Audit controls for your emergency notification service

CONTROLLING ACCESS TO YOUR ENS … AND THE SENSITIVE DATA STORED THERE

Emergency notification services are designed to help you contact tens, hundreds or thousands of people at the touch of a button. The downside of that is … you are now responsible for looking after data belonging to tens, hundreds or thousands of people. If you’re lucky, that data may be restricted to work related contact details, but more often than not, emergency notification systems are used to communicate with people using their personal mobile phones, their home landlines and their private email addresses.

Modern mass notification services are usually cloud hosted, and your provider should be able to give you all the re-assurance you need about where your data is stored, and the physical and logical measures taken to protect it. For example, Alert Cascade is hosted here in the EU via Amazon Web Services and you can read our security factsheet here.

But what about the human element? Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) reports regularly show that despite the huge technological advances made over the last decade, human error (and sometimes deliberate human action) continues to be the root cause of the majority of data breaches they deal with.

2017 Rebecca Gray leaves her role with a recruitment agency and moves to a rival firm; before leaving, she downloads and emails the personal data of approximately 100 clients and potential clients to her personal email address and subsequently uses the information at her new job.

2016 Historic Society allow a staff member to work from 4 separate locations, as well as from home, and provide a laptop as part of the role. The unencrypted laptop is subsequently stolen, along with personal data relating to all individuals who had loaned or donated artifacts to the Historical Society.

2015 London healthcare clinic accidentally leaks HIV status of patients by emailing all subscribers to their “Option E” service (which allows HIV positive patients to receive test results, schedule appoints and receive newsletters) and using the “To” field rather than the “BCC” field.

2014 Norfolk County Council sells redundant office furniture to a third party without checking the furniture is empty; when a member of the public subsequently purchased a filing cabinet from the third party, they found that it contained case files relating to the local children’s social work team.

Accidents happen, but in today’s world (and with GDPR just round the corner) it’s important that we all take steps to minimise the chances of an accidental breach and to mitigate the effect of any such breach. So, how can your emergency notification service help you with that?

DATA ACCESS AND USER PERMISSION LEVELS

Being able to securely upload your contact data is important; as well as obligations under the Data Protection Act (DPA) and General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), there are operational reasons why up to date contact data is vital. The main focus of an emergency notification service is to be able to use the service to notify people in an emergency … and you can’t do that without accurate contact data. You can learn more about the data maintenance options available with Alert Cascade by reading our post, Garbage in, garbage out!

Now that you have your data in place, and you’re maintaining it regularly, you need to think about who should be able to access it and why. Our mass notification service allows you to set individual permission levels to meet the needs of your business in a crisis, without compromising data security. For example, Operators can see individual names and create, send or amend messages. But, they can’t see the contact data relating to those individuals. So they have enough access to fulfil their role, but no access to information they don’t specifically require.

Admins on the other hand, can access personal data. But that doesn’t mean they automatically have access to everything. Alert Cascade gives you the option to create child accounts with their own administrators; they still have all of the administrator functionality, but their dataset is limited to the child account – perfect for regional offices or subdivisions who need to be able to invoke a local level Business Continuity Plan, but shouldn’t have access to personal data belonging to staff in other locations.

And last but not least, new users are created at the lowest access level by default. You can tell us to create a user as an admin or operator during the import process, or you can manually amend a user access profile via the responsive dashboard, but in the absence of those instructions, Alert Cascade’s default setting is to create low level users with no access to sensitive data – privacy by default.

FILE PRIVACY SETTINGS

Alert Cascade includes a secure media library module, designed to allow you to keep back ups of your important files outside of your own infrastructure and to store frequently used attachments ready for quick deployment as part of your email and SMS messages. But not all of those files will be suitable for general release, and some of those files may contain commercially sensitive or personally private information.

To help you manage your files effectively, in addition to the standard user permission levels, you can set privacy policies on individual files. They can be assigned to a specific child group, or made available at top level only; you can choose between Private (available to admins who have access to the group the file is assigned to), Shared (available to all users, but can only be uploaded, edited or deleted by an admin) or Public (all the functionality of Shared, with the added ability to create a link to the file that can be shared outside of your users).

You can chose to include a link to one of your media library files within your messages; the link will expire when your message expires, ensuring that information that is relevant to one specific event is only accessible whilst the event is still live. Customer feedback tells us that out of date information, or accessing previous versions of documents, can cause a huge amount of confusion during a business disruption event. Putting you in control of how and when your files can be accessed also puts you in control of the situations you’re dealing with.

AUDIT CONTROLS AND REPORTS

Despite all of the safeguards our emergency notification service will give you, mistakes (or accidentally on purposes) may still happen. The key thing here is that if you don’t know something’s happened, you can’t do anything about it. Because of that, we give you the ability to send automatic notifications to your admins for key risk areas within your account:

  • Contact data imports, including manual uploads, SFTP files and API integration
  • Contact data exports, including users list and detailed message report downloads
  • Media library file uploads of any file type, notification includes privacy settings used
  • Media library file amendments, notification includes details of the amendment made
  • Media library file deletions, includes a warning to check saved messages that use this file
  • Media library file downloads when accessed via the dashboard

If you have child groups set up, you can notify just the child group admins of media library and data actions, or you can include the global admins in your distribution list. And this isn’t an all or nothing feature. As with everything else in our platform, we recognise that different customers have different ways of using the service and different internal policies and procedures. So, each trigger point for your audit notifications can be turned on or off via our unique app free web dashboard. Whatever device you’re using, you can set appropriate access levels for your users, you can set appropriate privacy levels for your files, and you can monitor access to the most sensitive parts of your service.

Choosing your emergency notification system

A QUICK SEARCH ON GOOGLE WILL SHOW YOU JUST HOW MANY DIFFERENT EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION SYSTEMS ARE OUT THERE …. BUT HOW DO YOU CHOOSE THE VENDOR (AND THE PLATFORM) THAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU?

MOST SYSTEMS THESE DAYS WILL GIVE YOU TWO WAY VOICE CALLS, TWO WAY SMS TEXT MESSAGES AND TWO WAY EMAIL CAPABILITY, BUT THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS …

1) DATA MANAGEMENT

Keeping your contact data up to date is the cornerstone of your emergency notification system – without this, even if the platform has hundreds of bells and whistles, your message won’t get through.

Questions to ask:

  • Can I import my data straight from my existing data source (HR system, CRM etc)?
  • I want to choose my own field labels and use my own column headers, can I do that?
  • Are there any limits on how many contact fields I can capture for each person?
  • My telephone numbers are inconsistently formatted, can your platform cope with that?
  • Does your platform highlight duplicates or do I have to do that manually?
  • Do you have an API so we can automate the process?

2) SENDING A MESSAGE

Now that you know your data is up to date, you need to be able to quickly and easily send a message; otherwise, what’s the point of the system? You might need to contact everyone in your database, or you might need to refine your list and only reach out to people based in certain locations, with certain job roles, who have certain qualifications. Either way, this should be a simple process with no technical expertise required.

Questions to ask:

  • Our staff are mainly field based and would need to use their mobile phones or tablets to send a message, can they do this?
  • I want members of my team to be able to send a message, but they shouldn’t be able to see other people’s personal contact data, is this possible?
  • Sometimes we need to select who should receive a message based on multiple criteria, how easy is it to do that?
  • We’re only going to use this in emergencies, is the sending process simple enough that I’ll be able to do it with little/no training?
  • We have standard documents that we need to send out with our emergency notifications, how do I do that?
  • Our emergency messages won’t always be template messages – how easy is it to create AND send in a crisis?

3) REPORTING AND AUDIT

Now that you’ve successfully sent your message, you need to be sure that everyone received it and that they’re following any instructions you’ve given them. Otherwise, how do can you make informed decisions about what you should do now and what you might do differently next time?

Questions to ask:

  • Can I access your reports in real time on my mobile phone or tablet?
  • Do your reports show me that the message has definitely been received or only that you’ve definitely sent it?
  • Can I re-send my message to people who haven’t replied, direct from the reports page?
  • Can I create a new message to staff based on their response, direct from the reports page?
  • How long are your reports available?
  • How detailed are your reports and can I export them to use in my own management information system?

4) HELP AND SUPPORT

Hopefully, your chosen emergency notification service will be simple enough that you don’t need to rely on help and support from your vendor. But, you still need to think about how you will handle new starters who need training, staff who change role within your organisation and unforeseen circumstances where you need that extra bit of help.

Questions to ask:

  • Does your mass notification system include a detailed online help and support area?
  • Is your support team physically based in my country or is it just a phone number that routes here?
  • Do I have to pay extra for extra training once the platform has been implemented?
  • Do your support staff have any experience of using the platform in an operational situation or are they just “techies”?
  • Is your support team available 24/7?
  • Can I speak to a live person?

5) PRICING

Let’s be honest, pricing isn’t the be all and end all, but for most customers, it will have an impact on the vendor that you choose to work with. A clear and straightforward pricing structure sets the tone for a clear and straightforward working relationship.

Questions to ask:

  • Are mass notification system upgrades included in my annual fee?
  • How much extra is it going to cost me if my organisation expands and I need to expand my contact database?
  • Does it cost me more if I make more use of the support team than some customers?
  • Are there extra costs associated with storing files in the media library?
  • Can I pay by direct debit or credit card or do you only accept BACs payments?
  • Do you offer an all inclusive plan so that the cost of my voice calls, SMS text messages and emails are included with my annual subscription?

What we’ve got here, is failure to communicate …