I was sound asleep at 6AM one morning a couple of January’s ago when my phone rang. Actually, my house phone rang, which scared the hell out of me because NOBODY ever calls us on it anymore. Before I could answer it, my wife’s cellphone started buzzing across the room and my phone started ringing downstairs. When I answered I heard, “Hello, this is the superintendent of schools. Today is a snow day, all schools are closed. Have a great day.”
“That was awesome!” I muttered as I flopped back into bed. “The kids are going to be psyched and I don’t need to crawl downstairs to try to figure out if school is off.” My town had invested in a Mass Notification system and since then it has been used many times. Not only for snow days, but also for news around power outages from a hurricane and a major water main break that disrupted water for the whole Boston area for a week. We’ve even started to get text messages instead of calls.
Making a Mass Notification System Work
Mass Notification, at its most basic, is using technology to send a single message to multiple individuals. This can be performed in various ways; phone, SMS, email, instant message, secure mobile apps, even via speakers on a factory floor, or as we discussed recently, via digital signage. Putting an effective mass / group notification system in place can provide multiple benefits to many types of organizations and their constituents, but does require some planning prior to implementation.
To learn more about how best to make Mass / Group Notification systems work effectively and how organizations are taking advantage of them, we spoke with Brian McDonald, the Director of Product Management at Mutare, a company specializing in Unified Messaging. “Deploying a mass notification system is really about effectively managing your lists. The data about the individuals being contacted comes from somewhere, usually multiple databases, and that generally means integrations and good data management.”
In the case of a town system, that might mean tapping into Active Directory for city employee contact info, the school system databases for parent’s contact details, and the city planning database to break the lists down by neighborhoods, schools or roads. As McDonald explains, “The more metadata you can build into your lists, the more effective the platform is going to be. This will allow you to identify targeted groups of individuals, determine their contact preferences and connect with them in their manner of choice.”
Ways Businesses Are Benefitting From Mass Notification
It is not only municipalities and school systems that benefit from mass notification systems, although the many campus emergencies recently have certainly raised the profile and importance of these solutions. “Immediate notification during emergency situations are a big benefit for organizations,” says McDonald, “whether that is around weather, evacuation notices, shelter in place warnings or a child abduction, but that is certainly not the only way organizations are leveraging these tools.” Some examples of beneficial use cases we discussed include:
- Utility companies notifying their customers of significant outages affecting them and when they will be rectified
- Businesses reminding employees that their benefits paperwork is due (by tomorrow!)
- Transit systems notifying staff of changes in route, closures and cancellations
- IT teams being automatically provided not only with event notification, but also event details when certain scenarios arise (allowing them to triage the issue much more quickly and maybe go back to sleep and deal with it in the morning)
- Healthcare organizations recalling staff in emergency situations
- Retail companies notifying employees of a new procedure or sale (which can be pushed through cell phones or digital signage)
“We had one large client that utilized the notification system to let employees know about a water main break, the best way to avoid traffic and to remind them to use the east entrance since the west was impacted,” explained McDonald. “The employees appreciated this, but there is a risk of what we call ‘carpet bombing’ when the system is used too frequently. Understanding the lists of people that need to be notified for specific reasons can make all the difference.”
Hosted vs On-Premise Mass Notification Systems
By their nature, these systems sit idle the great majority of the time, and then explode into action. Think on the snow day example. The superintendent likely logged into the web interface, recorded a message, chose the correct lists, clicked a button and 10,000 families were instantaneously notified – in our case on 3 phones at once! That is some serious backend capability.
“That is why a hosted services solution is easiest to deploy and makes the most sense for the vast majority of organizations,” explains McDonald. “Businesses want the proven capability to execute on notifications, without the headaches of deploying all the necessary infrastructure to maintain it internally.”
With that said, some large or governmental organizations need to manage their own systems for compliance or security reasons These groups need to maintain the servers, burstable phone lines and the resources necessary for all notification methods. “We’ve worked with organizations that have security requirements so tight that all notifications need to go through a secure mobile app, not via text or email,” says McDonald.
And regardless of whether the system is hosted or managed on-site, data and system integrations (telephony infrastructure, signage, email system, databases, etc.) will still need to performed.