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Integrating Social Networks in Emergency Mass Notification Systems

By TMCnet Special Guest
David Edgar
  |  August 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 2011 issue of Unified Communications Magazine

In the last several years, social networks have undergone explosive growth. Penetration and high adoption in areas as diverse as higher education, business, and recently the Department of Defense, demand that this important communications channel be incorporated in any emergency mass alerting system.

To exploit these new web-based communication channels, network-centric mass notification architectures are incorporating the power and reach of computer networks and the Internet to deliver emergency alerting well beyond those of traditional alerting systems. The Internet lets emergency managers send emergency alerts via IP-aware media gateways through web sites (commercial, public and government), and by way of social networks (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn (News - Alert) and other non-traditional channels, opening new avenues for network-centric emergency mass notification.

It is important to integrate social networks as a channel for emergency networks because of the high adoption rates of these large-scale networks and their abilities reach to millions of people quickly. Additionally, social networks add a reliable layer of redundancy, becoming an alternative communication route when wireless and telecom networks become clogged with traffic in emergencies or experience outages as a result of the emergency. Including these existing channels adds value to emergency mass notification systems without added costs.

The tragic events at the U.S. Army’s Fort Hood serve as an example of where social networks were used to update personnel about the shootings on base. The after-action report on the shootings on Fort Hood specifically cited the need to use social networks to reach all personnel, including family members and dependents, during an emergency. The presidential report on the response to pandemics also noted the importance of being able to exploit social networks as communications channels when the timely dissemination of information is required.

The integration with social networks allows recipients to receive emergency notifications from their known and trusted organizations. Upon publishing an emergency alert such as a tornado warning or a chemical spill, the organization’s emergency operator is able to select the social network through which the alert would be delivered. All users who are members of the appropriate network then would receive the alert.

Using a mass notification solution, a university’s emergency manager could publish an emergency alert to the university’s Twitter (News - Alert) or Facebook account, for example. All students following the university’s tweets or connected to the university via Facebook then would receive the alert via their self-designated method of choice (text message, e-mail or web). 

In fact, integration can enable an alerting system to send redundant and consistent messages to any IP-enabled channel, including phones (soft, voice over IP, landline, cell), text, e-mail, instant messengers, audio/visual desktop pop-up notification as well as traditional one-way notification channels such as sirens/public address systems, pagers, digital displays, television, radios and pagers.

Cisco (News - Alert) Unified Communications Manager (CUCM) was part of the first VoIP integration with a network-centric mass notification system.

An IP-based emergency mass notification system can also fully integrate with the Microsoft (News - Alert) Lync platform to enable emergency managers to trigger emergency alerts to landline and mobile phones, VoIP phones and Instant Messenger. The integrated solution provides users with the ability to subscribe to notifications and receive them in real time via IM, e-mail and mobile devices, as well as initiate instant multi-modal (web/audio/video) collaboration sessions for first responders.

This fulfills a need for real-time notifications for large enterprises and campuses to protect their people and property. This integration provides a great opportunity to leverage these channels for mass alerting during an emergency.

Adoption of standards such as the common alerting protocol can further aid with communication to the appropriate audience by incorporating information feeds from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and the National Weather Service.

Because multiple and redundant alerting channels ensure maximum reach in the event of an emergency, alerting via web-based channels  allows social network users to receive critical alerts from their trusted organizations. Additionally, the end user’s organization can have a consistent message sent through a direct personal channel (i.e. phone, text messaging or desktop notification) as well as via social networks messaging, covering users who are traditionally on the boundaries of the organizations’ typical users – for example, families and dependants of military personnel.

By communicating via the Internet, public safety and security officials can send alerts to affected communities. They also can provide links to sites that are delivering critical information and updates on the emergency at hand in a trusted and consistent manner.

And by setting a geo-location parameter for emergencies, notifications can be triggering based on an event’s location – for example, targeted alerts to those residing in a flood zone. This capability can help those affected focus on messages relevant to their locale and vicinity, filtering out non-relevant information.

Some network-centric mass notification systems also can monitor selected social networks feeds and automatically identify events that may impact a specific organization. Examples of this would be the local fire department Twitter feed or the Centers for Disease Control’s Twitter profile for emergency information. Monitored information such as this then can be used to trigger alerts automatically to personnel in affected organizations. This increases the speed at which emergencies are identified and alerts are triggered, enabling a faster response from security personnel.

David Edgar is director of operations for federal civilian for AtHoc Inc.
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Edited by Stefania Viscusi