Category: Platform features

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 …

Why it’s a bad idea to rely on email only communications …

FOR THE LAST 15 YEARS, WE’VE SPECIALISED IN PROVIDING OUR CUSTOMERS WITH RESILIENT, UK BASED MASS NOTIFICATION SERVICES. HERE’S WHY OUR PLATFORM PROVIDES MULTIPLE COMMUNICATION PATHS AS STANDARD …

REDUNDANCY AND RESILIENCE

We all have our preferred method of communicating, and our platform lets you cater to those preferences by choosing what contact data you store, which channels you want to use for your message, who you want to communicate with and when. But all that being said, it’s still important to consider how you’d cope if your preferred communication channel wasn’t available.

For example, as an organisation, how would you cope if your email service was down due to somebody accidentally sending a test email to 850k users? How would your staff keep in touch with each other? How would the outside world reach you? How would you let people know that your IT team are already dealing with this and they don’t need another 600 support tickets being opened about the same issue?

MULTI MODAL COMMUNICATION

Problem: email is down and your IT team need to concentrating on fixing the issue, not fielding support tickets
Solution: send a voice call to office phones and a text to field staff mobile phones letting everyone know what’s happening, and follow it up with regular updates using the same channels

Problem: you’re having internet issues and your office phones run on Voice over Internet Protocol
Solution: text your staff to keep them in the loop and re-direct your customer facing phone lines to your Audio Noticeboard

Problem: there’s been a major incident and MTPAS has been invoked meaning your voice calls aren’t going through to mobiles and you need to know your people are safe
Solution: send voice calls to landlines (even if GTPS has been invoked as well, inbound landline calls will still go through), emails to any addresses you have and SMS text messages to mobiles, all with polling enabled so your contacts can let you know they’re safe and well

Within the context of mass communications, multi modal simply means the ability to communicate on more than one channel or mode. That’s why we’ve specifically designed Alert Cascade 4.0 with the ability for you to add unlimited contact fields, and to set them up in the way that works best for you.

Whether you call them cell phones, mobiles, landlines, desk phones, e-mail addresses or emails, you can choose exactly what data you want to store and how. Then, when it’s time to send your message, you can pick and chose the communication channels to use, based on the situation you’re dealing with.

Mass notification service - choose your own contact fields for more effective business continuity messaging

Improving your emergency messaging with high quality Text to Speech voices

WE’RE THE ONLY UK OWNED MASS NOTIFICATION COMPANY WITH UK HOSTING, UK SUPPORT AND NOW … UK REGIONAL ACCENTS FOR OUR TEXT TO SPEECH (TTS) VOICES!

THE IMPORTANCE OF HIGH QUALITY TTS

Text to speech technology, in it’s current format, has been around for a while now. But, we’ve all heard examples of poor text to speech, or robotic sounding voices. When it comes to emergency or business continuity messaging, the importance of clear, easily understood, text to speech voices cannot be overestimated.

If you’re the person triggering a message, you don’t have time to waste writing your text phonetically with double spaces for pauses in an attempt to make your tea  tea  ess engine read your content clearly.

If you’re the person receiving the message, you don’t want to miss vital (possibly life saving) information because the TTS engine is struggling to pronounce the content correctly.

THE IMPORTANCE OF REGIONAL ACCENTS

So, let’s take it as a given that high quality TTS is vital for your emergency and business continuity messaging. What else can we do to make it easier for you to get your message across?

Traditionally, UK TTS voices have been based around Received Pronunciation – otherwise known as Queen’s English. Recent research shows though, that this accent is only used by 2% of the UK population, with even less use in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Why then, would you choose to use this accent for your messages?

Alert Cascade includes 13 different TTS voices as standard, covering a wide range of regional accents and letting you chose the voice that will be most easily understood by your contacts.

HOW GOOD IS OUR TTS?

  Available with local accents to help your contacts easily understand your message

  Available in multiple languages so you can communicate with everyone

  Able to learn the pronunciations of difficult words and acronyms

  Uses patented Emotional Speech Synthesis to express emotions

  Designed, engineered and supported here in the UK

Our resource centre includes examples of the different voices, and how our customers use them to help get their message out. From severe weather warnings to letting your staff know there’s a problem with the company email system, Alert Cascade has a voice to suit you.

Biffa implements new incident line technology

STREAMLINING INCIDENT MANAGEMENT USING ALERT CASCADE CONNECT

BIFFA … NUMBER ONE FOR SAFETY

One of the UK’s largest integrated waste management companies, Biffa, has implemented a new incident communication and management system across it’s 190 sites. The system will be used by site managers to quickly and easily communicate with key members of divisional management teams, escalate incidents to crisis level and keep Group executives in the loop.

Biffa have opted to use Alert Cascade Connect to deliver their incident management communications, with each of the 10 divisions having access to their own individual Connect account complete with email and SMS delivery of initial incident reports, dedicated audio conferencing lines and bespoke voice prompts ensuring that all relevant information is collected during the initial incident call. Whilst Biffa have always focused heavily on health and safety processes, the implementation of Alert Cascade Connect gives them these added benefits:

  Just one number for a site manager to dial to report an incident, rather than ringing through a call list. Staff dealing with an already stressful situation now have one less thing to worry about.

•  Using the configurable IVR options on Connect accounts, Biffa can standardise the information being captured to ensure that the crisis team get everything they need rather than what the caller thinks they need.

•  A copy of the initial incident call is now delivered to the relevant team via email and SMS, with links to a secure conference call rather than relying on a manual call tree and Chinese whispers. The whole team now gets the whole story within seconds of the site manager making the call, enabling closer collaboration and swifter decision making.

•  The incident lines and conference call features are now hosted outside of the Biffa infrastructure, offering greater resilience and ensuring there are no capacity or network issues during a crisis.

•  The Alert Cascade Connect end to end report suite provides greater accountability via the detailed call records, email and SMS delivery reports and conference call recordings, all with the option for secure storage within the Alert Cascade environment or secure delivery to the Biffa environment via Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP).

In line with their organisational values, Biffa have invested not just in our software but also in actively engaging with their staff from the ground up to find a solution that works at all levels. As part of this, we’ve worked alongside our customer to make sure that everything, from the bespoke voice prompts to the advanced email templates and SMS sender names, work for users at different levels using different devices and based at different locations. We’ve tweaked templates and amended wording based on user feedback and we’re now proud to announce that the platform is being rolled out across the country as we speak.

Closing the communication loop by capturing responses

FOR THE LAST 15 YEARS, WE’VE SPECIALISED IN PROVIDING OUR CUSTOMERS WITH RESILIENT, UK BASED MASS COMMUNICATION SERVICES. WHAT MAKES US DIFFERENT?

Answering machines and mass communication services

Using a single source of truth to improve your mass communications

Introducing … Alert Cascade version 4.0