Mass Notification: Lessons Learned, Lessons Forgotten

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When I first started blogging, nearly 10 years ago, the subject on a lot of folks' minds was Mass Notifications Systems. If 911 was a wakeup call for the industry, the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007 was a bucket of cold water after pressing the snooze button over and over again.

Following VA Tech and subsequent disasters and shootings, everyone was interested in mass/emergency notification systems. Providers were popping up left and right. Across the country plans were discussed and directives were issued from concerned boards and executives. I was an early believer and worked to help the industry move forward to address this pressing need. Speaking engagements, webinars, and even an interview on the local news radio station in Atlanta poured in as this was one of hot areas of the mid-to-late 2000s.

And then, as time pushed us further away from the sad realities of 911 and VA Tech, these projects would move further down the priority list. But they would bounce right back up as soon as another disaster hit, acting as a fresh reminder of why mass communication is so important.

This trend, while depressing, is maybe better than where we are now. It seems like the projects aren't bouncing back anymore, even as we face an increasing threat of mass terror in our own country. And if you believe the scientific community on global warming and climate change, things are only going to get worse in facing natural disasters.

We like to think as a society that we won't forget and that we will learn from our mistakes. The reality is the passage of time creates enough distance that the pressing matters of today seem to overshadow the concerns of yesterday.

At times, I myself have fallen into that trap. While I have continued to work in the mass communications space, I had to go back pretty far to find the last time I spoke or wrote about the subject. It is almost like the mass notification "fad" has come and gone. But why aren't we taking the subject seriously anymore? I know some of you still do, but many organizations continue to keep it at the bottom of the project pile.

This may sound depressingly trite, but it isn't a matter of "will there be another incident," but rather, when and where will the next attack occur. The San Bernardino terror attack serves as an unpleasant reminder that mass shootings aren't limited to high schools and colleges. That attack, like 911, occurred at a place of business.

As I continued to work in the mass communications technology space, I realized one of the most overlooked opportunities to leverage these tools was in automating communications interactions that are often bogging down critical business processes. In industry after industry I am still finding manual communications processes that continue to be the slowest and weakest link in carrying out day-to-day business of an organization. When you take these tools from a standalone service and integrated them into your business processes, you can make huge and measureable productivity gains -- and, by the way, will be prepared for an emergency situation as well.

Some disasters, such as hurricanes and blizzards, are predictable to a certain extent. Others appear at the blink of an eye without any warning. A spectacular cool and clear morning in Manhattan on a Tuesday in September. Another amazing spring day to be a college student in Blacksburg, VA. We learned after both of these events that we weren't prepared to deal with them and most folks don't blame the brave responders that dealt with the aftermath. But the expectation we all have as a society is that we work hard to improve on things so that next time we are better prepared.

The very least we can do is have a communications plan along with the supporting technology in place to provide what could be life or death information to our employees, customers, and other associated personnel.

And then hope and pray we never have to use it.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.