Crisis Mass Communications to Enter New Age (UPDATED)

By Stew Magnuson
Mass notification systems designed to inform the public, workers or other groups of a crisis date back to the age of rotary phones.

Several high-profile incidents over the last decade have spurred legislation to force organizations and other entities to put these systems in place. The Virginia Tech mass shooting in 2007 prompted Congress to make notification systems mandatory on campuses, and the Fort Hood, Texas, shooting in 2009 did the same for military bases.

Messages transmitted during mass shootings, terrorist attacks or natural disasters have traditionally been simple commands to members of the public to either evacuate or shelter in place.

But the rapid proliferation of mobile devices is now blending with cloud computing, GPS and the Internet to take crisis communications to a new level, said an industry executive.

“We see a convergence happening using mobility, cloud and IP,” said Guy Miasnik, president and CEO of AtHoc Inc., which specializes in mass notification services.

Now ubiquitous smartphones mean that everyone carrying such a device can act as a sensor in a crisis, he said at the Milcom conference in San Diego.

Mass notifications typically flowed in one direction, but can now go both ways.

A typical crisis notification normally has four steps. A report is sent. That is often a 911 call or it could be someone pulling a fire alarm. Next, the information is processed at some kind of command-and-control center. Then messages are pushed out to first responders and members of the public.

Some of those messages may be directed at ordinary people caught up in the crisis.

Accountability is the final step when managers want to know where everyone is located. That’s where GPS-enabled devices are important.

Bi-directional communications means they can send texts. “I’m okay,’ or ‘I’m not okay. Send help.” They can send pictures or video of what is happening at their location, along with location data, Miasnik said.

This is all converging with a similar trend in the police and emergency realm with NG-911, or next-generation 911, which is also seeking to leverage these new capabilities.

Cloud computing and communications over IP means that it is easier to put standards in place, Miasnik said. That would allow a command center to push out more detailed information to the public such as maps of where the crisis was occurring. The Navy is moving in this direction with all its crisis communications driven by cloud computing, he added.

Multi-modal ways to push out and receive messages are still preferred, he said.

“Five or six ways to communicate with people is great and provides redundancy, but without a unified approach, you can actually create confusion,” he added.

These are crises after all.

 “When bad things happen, you don’t know what will fail,” he added.

Lt. Col. Ed Mattison, the Army’s chief information office/cybersecurity and mobility technology lead, said the service has struggled to meet its mass notification requirements. Relatively few personnel on a base have government-issued cell phones, and they are mostly senior officers. Lower ranking service members and their families have their own devices.

“We will be challenged by these implementations since 90 percent of soldiers don’t have a government-furnished device,” he said at the conference.

Base emergency notifications are still sent via email to desktop computers or on phone lines, he said.  

“If we are talking about bringing in the other million-plus folks with their personal devices we run into a lot of issues,” Mattison said. There are security and privacy implications, and other legal issues the Army is working through, he added.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Guy Miasnik's name.

Topics: Homeland Security, Disaster Response, Emergency Communications, Science and Engineering Technology, Homeland Security

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