Considerations for Choosing an Emergency Mass Notification System

When disaster strikes, you want an Emergency Mass Notification System that meets the needs of your business. Follow this guide and explore the considerations that should factor in your selection process.

Written by Jim Preen
Crisis Management Director @ YUDU Sentinel

Choosing the right emergency mass notification system for your organisation is a big decision. There are many different providers in the market, all offering different solutions for crisis communications. They also come with widely varying price tags.

Perhaps you are looking for an emergency mass notification platform for the first time, or have been tasked with upgrading your present system. Companies and firms will have different requirements depending on their type of operation, number of staff, number of offices and geographical location.

You will need to consider a range of factors, when making your choice, some of which are complex. To help you on this journey, we’ve created a comprehensive list of considerations, which combines detailed research with our expertise in crisis management and business continuity.

In an emergency, getting the right messages to the right people can literally be the difference between life and death. Failing to get in touch with a key individual or sending a confusing or poorly composed message can have severe consequences.

Here, we look at considerations when choosing a mass notification system. We examine what the key features do and why they could be a ‘must have’ for you.

Table of Contents

Multi-Channel Communications

You want an emergency mass notification system that is capable of sending mass alerts simultaneously through multiple communication channels – SMS, email, instant messages, push notifications etc.

Relying on a single channel, such as text or email, increases the risk of emergency notifications being missed. Which can have significant consequences depending on the severity of the incident.

Choosing a platform capable of sending multi-channel communications improves deliverability and visibility of emergency alerts.

Multi-Channel Communications

You also get the flexibility to choose different channels depending on the type of alert. As well as the ability to align communications with existing business channels.

Multi-Channel Communication Functionality Checklist

Look for an emergency mass notification with the following multi-channel functionality:

  • The more communication channels the better – SMS, email, instant message, push notifications, web notifications, voice calls, social media
  • The ability to add custom communication channels such as internal systems or other third-party platforms such as slack
  • The ability to send alerts simultaneously through these multiple communication channels

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Mass Alerts

Mass Alerting or Group Notifications are the beating heart of an emergency mass notification system. An excellent definition of what they do and what they’re for comes from the US Department of Homeland Security:

“Notification systems allow for real-time dissemination of information and intelligence via equipment such as cellular phones, pagers, personal digital assistants, computers, etc. Their primary function is to quickly alert responders to potential threats or emergency situations and to provide direction on how to respond to alerts.”

Mass Alerting Considerations

Two-way communications

Mass notification alerts provide all your stakeholders with the information they need to respond to an emergency. Some systems offer two-way communications so staff can respond to your messages.

This enables you to check if your staff are safe and also provides you with up-to-date information from those with ‘boots on the ground’. This will help give your crisis management team a better situational understanding of what’s happening if the team is working remotely.

For example, if there is an active shooter situation, staff can use the Mass Alert system to let the crisis team know their status and where they are located.

Simplicity of use

Mass Alerts are at the sharp end of any emergency notification platform. This means that ease of use is paramount. Whatever system you choose must be intuitive and not leave admins, users or recipients of messages confused or unable to operate the system. Work can be done ahead of time when it comes to setting up groups and message templates.

Templates

During an emergency incident, particularly in the first minutes and hours, you will need to get messages out fast. Templates are the key to making this happen as simply and easily as possible.

Creating pre-scripted messages and tailoring them for specific incidents is a job that should be done ahead of time.

Even if the boilerplate messages are changed during an incident it means crisis managers aren’t starting from a blank sheet of paper. These templated alerts should also feature links to websites where staff can access resources that might help them during a specific type of emergency.

Groups

Mass alerts must reach the right people. Informing someone their building is on fire and they must vacate it immediately is hardly going to inspire confidence in the crisis management team if the building on fire is in London when the message is received in New York.

Setting up groups is a key piece of work that must be completed in advance. By segmenting your stakeholders, you will be able to reach all your audiences in a secure and safe manner in a matter of moments.

Sign-off process

The system will also require an effective sign-off process as to who has authority to initiate and send messages. It will probably be found in your BC plan, but thought must be given as to what constitutes an emergency or crisis and when the mass notification system should be rolled out.

This may well be when your Crisis Management Team (CMT) is stood up. The boilerplate messages discussed above must be approved by the relevant senior manager.

Mass Alerting Functionality Checklist

When choosing an emergency mass notification system, you want mass alerting functionality allowing you to:

  • Send emergency mass notification alerts to groups or individuals
  • Send messages via, SMS, email, programmable voice, in-app or instant messaging
  • Create template messages to ensure alerts are approved by senior leadership
  • Send two-way communications to check staff safety status and location

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Mobile Device Accessibility

Following the pandemic, people are no longer in offices eight hours a day, five days a week. Staff may not be travelling in the way they did, but organisations are now dealing with an atomised workforce many of whom are working remotely from a variety of locations.

All of which means that a modern emergency mass notification system must be developed as a mobile-first solution. Just about everyone has a smart phone and sitting on their phone must be an app that is an integral part of your crisis comms platform.

Mobile Device Accessibility Considerations

You need to be confident you are able to reach your audiences anywhere, anytime. A best-in-class emergency notification app should be able to handle virtually the whole range of features found on the desktop version.

Mobile Device Functionality Checklist

Your emergency notification system's app should meet the following checklist requirements:

  • Provide access to all the emergency notification functionality available on the desktop platform - so you can trigger mergency alerts when out the office
  • Provide offline functionality - so staff can access certain key features when connectivity is not available - emergency documents, contacts directory etc.
  • Be approved and available on Apple and Google App stores
  • Function on as wide a range of smart phones and tablets as possible

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Speed of Communication

Time is a critical factor in an emergency, you want a mass notification system that allows for fast communication.

Your emergency mass notification system will influence speed of communication form creation to delivery in two distinct ways:

  1. How long it takes to create and send your emergency alert
  2. The speed of the communication channel itself
Speed of Communication

You want a system that offers ease of use and built-in functionality to accelerate message creation and distribution. In addition, you want a range of communication channels available with the fastest communication speed.

Speed of Communication Considerations Checklist

When looking for a platform, you’ll want to look at the following:

Built-in system functionality

  • Templates – you want a system that offers the ability to create set, pre-scripted template messages, tailored for specific scenarios. This will accelerate message creation during a critical incident.
  • Groups – you need the ability to create pre-set groups, allowing you to send the right message to the right people at the click of a button during a crisis.
  • One-click multichannel communication – when sending an emergency alert, the platform should allow you to send a single communication through multiple channels in a single click. You don’t want to duplicate effort creating and sending the alert through each individual communication channel.

Communication channels

Some channels are faster than others when delivering an emergency alert.

  • You want a platform that offers multiple communication channels
  • Consider a platform with the following channels and note the speed of each communication
    • Text messaging – typically the most common channel, most providers can typically send as many as 48,000 SMS messages in under 60 seconds.
    • Email – while delivery speed can take seconds, mass email communications can delay delivery by hours. There are also other risks, such as the email being flagged as spam, or your email service provider blocking sends due to 'excessive' volume
    • Instant messages – while the name seems self-explanatory, not all providers instant messaging capabilities are created equal. Enquire into your providers capacity of how many 1000s of instant messages they can send in any given time frame.
    • Push notifications – web and mobile push notifications are both incredibly fast and support significant volume. Pushwoosh can deliver 1 million push notifications in under 3 seconds.

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Deployment Models

One of the key decisions for selecting your emergency mass notification system is whether you plan to deploy it on-premises or in the cloud. There are several key factors to consider:

On-premises deployment

Deploying the platform on-premises requires your in-house IT team to manage, maintain and update the system. As long as your team have the requisite skills then you can benefit from improved security and integration with local systems.

Deployment Models

However, this comes at increased cost due to the additional human resource required to manage the platform. You also face a significant risk of your platform becoming unavailable if internal systems go offline due to power outages, network failures, or a cyber-attack.

Cloud-based deployment

A cloud-based emergency mass notification system can offer you significant benefits over on-premises deployments.

Most importantly, cloud-based systems offer more robust failover scenarios. Ensuring far greater resilience and availability. It would take a worldwide network failure - which to date has never occured - to prevent your system from remaining available.

Cloud-based systems are also managed by the provider, meaning you don’t have to worry about resourcing the expertise to manage, maintain and update your platform. Of course, you still need to know how to use it.

Lastely, explore whether your provider offers single tenant cloud hosting, as this can offer you significant security enhancements for your deployment.

Deployment Model Considerations Checklist

Depending on your deployment plans for your emergency mass notification system, here's what you should take in to consideration

On-premises deployment

  • Ensure you have the skills and resource internally to support, manage and maintain the system
  • Consider whether yout have the capacity to develop multiple failover scenarios in the event your local systems are compromised
  • Check whether you meet the technology specifications and network capacity required to run an emergency mass notification platform

Cloud-based deployment

  • Enquire which cloud platform your provider utilises
  • Check the type of cloud-based deployment your provider uses – whether it’s private or public as this influences security
  • Check if your provider offers a single tenant deployment
  • Clarify with your provider who is responsible for what, managing a cloud-based system is a shared responsibility

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Integration

When looking at emergency mass notification systems, you want a platform that integrates with your existing technology setup.

This can offer significant benefits such as:

  • Ensuring contact information within the platform is current and correct
  • Amplifying your messaging and alerts by utilising existing communication channels
  • Unlocking automation capabilities to accelerate and improve communications during an emergency
Platform Integration
  • Reducing workload by removing the need to duplicate information and actions across multiple platforms

Integration Considerations Checklist

When looking at integration features of your emergency mass notification platform, here’s what you should look for:

  • You want a platform that integrates with your HR system and syncs existing contacts and information
  • Look for a platform that will integrate with your existing communications software to amplify your alerts and messaging
  • You want a system that offers an API, so your existing applications can communicate and facilitate automation features
  • Look for a platform that provides integration with popular software systems across multiple programme types

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Vendor Quality

When choosing an emergency mass notification system, you want a provider you can trust who delivers a quality product. You’ll want to do a full background check of providers to assess their quality.

Look into who they work with, what people say about them, whether they win awards and achieve certification. These are strong indicators of the quality of your emergency mass notification software provider.

When doing these quality checks, you’re always looking for independent third-party information.

Vendor Quality

You can’t simply rely on the vendors website and what the salesperson tells you over the phone. You need to dig a little deeper for the full picture and peace of mind.

Vendor Quality Considerations Checklist

When researching emergency mass notification software vendors, use this checklist to assess their suitability:

  • Explore customer reviews on independent third-party platforms like Trustpilot, Google, Gartner and G2.
  • Look for providers who’ve achieved independent certification and accreditations, especially in security and compliance. It proves their software meets rigorous quality checks. ISO certification and HM Government G-Cloud supplier accreditation are good indicators.
  • Make sure your provider is GDPR compliant, especially if you’re providing them with sensitive company and employee information.
  • Uncover which organisations they partner with and whether they can be considered reputable.
  • Review their awards page to see if they’ve won any well established awards.
  • Ask to speak to existing customers and partners to get an insider opinion of what it’s like to work with them.

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Customer Support

When using your emergency mass notification system, you will eventually run into a situation where you need support from your provider.

You want a partner who provides a wide range of customer support services, through multiple channels. Giving you the means to solve any issues you might be having, whether it’s through a self-service portal or expert hands-on support. Available when you need it, with minimal delay for serious incidents.

Investigate the customer support package(s) available from your provider, pay attention to whether it’s included or an optional extra provided at an additional cost.

Customer Support

Customer Support Considerations Checklist

When exploring the customer support capabilities of emergency mass notification providers, these are the considerations you’ll want to factor into your decision:

  • You want a wide range of customer support types available through a range of channels – telephone, live-chat, remote login, online helpdesk, online FAQs, knowledge base, training resources.
  • Make sure you understand the hours when support is available and the country it’s being provided from – ideally you want 24/7, 365 days a year, available in your local region.
  • Understand the costs associated with different customer support types – is it included or an optional extra at additional cost.
  • If there are different support packages available, you’ll want to explore what each package gets you – look at availability hours, response times, incident escalation and support types (hands-on etc.).
  • Make sure your provider has an SLA and that it provides a satisfactory level of protection.

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Instant Messaging

The original communication channel used by mass notification software was SMS or text messages, and they still have a role to play.

But the way the world communicates is changing. Instant messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp and Slack, are typically now the primary port of call in the communication landscape. This is exactly the type of tool you need in a crisis; it’s fast, instant and targeted.

But there are problems with using existing technology such as WhatsApp and Slack for emergency notification.

Instant Messaging Considerations

WhatsApp doesn’t allow crisis managers to view conversations and groups unless they are invited to do so and when it comes to a post-incident review where conversations and document sharing needs to be analysed, WhatsApp sides with the users and not the crisis managers.

Your Crisis Management Team must have visibility of what is being said, what documents are being shared and what decision and actions are being taken.

  • Plus, users mustn’t have the ability to delete content that might reflect badly on them.
  • Staff shouldn’t have the ability to add participants to a chat group from outside your organisation without corporate oversight.
  • You don’t want entirely inappropriate individuals climbing on board and viewing your crisis response.

What firms need is an instant messaging channel that is designed from the ground up with emergency communications in mind. One that is secure, has corporate oversight and can readily be segmented into groups or teams that need to speak to each other. In Europe it must be GDPR compliant. The system should also be able to send pictures and documents.

In a crisis, speed is of the essence, and instant messaging channels are a great part of the modern crisis comms arsenal which allow crisis managers to see what actions, decisions and tasks are being undertaken and why.

Instant Messgaing Functionality Checklist

Your instant messaging functionailty should include the following features:

  • It must allow staff to communicate using instant messages
  • Include the ability to share files, photos and documents
  • Must be secure and GDPR compliant
  • Corporate control over who administrates group chats, who is present who joins and who leaves a group
  • Full corporate oversight of all messages and files shared

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Contacts Directory

In an emergency having all stakeholders contact details in once place is hugely beneficial. All staff and external stakeholder contacts should be held on both the desktop version of your emergency comms platform and on the smart phone app.

In Europe, your contacts directory must be GDPR compliant. It must sync automatically with you HR database as staff leave and join.

Contacts Directory Functionality Checklist

Contacts Directory Considerations

Your emergency mass notification software should have contacts directory functionality supporting:

  • A GDPR-compliant, ring-fenced directory for all your organisation’s contacts
  • A directory that syncs with your HR database
  • The ability to group Internal and external contacts in whatever form works best for your organisation
  • A staff prompt to verify their profile, check their contact details are correct, and have the option to make their profile private from others in the directory

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Teleconferencing

In a pandemic and post-pandemic world it’s unlikely a crisis management team will all be sat together in a conference room. Crisis management like many other aspects of business is now often handled remotely.

You'll want a platform that supports teleconferencing. This brings your crisis management team together on a conference call so that actions and decisions can be made in real-time.

The process of setting up a conference call should be quick and simple. It shouldn't require the team to dial in numbers or PIN codes. Chosen contacts should be sent an invitation and placed in the conference without delay.

Teleconferencing Considerations

You want functionality that supports conference call recording for auditing purposes and wider communication to staff and stakeholders if required.

Teleconferencing Functionality Checklist

Teleconferencing in your emergency mass comms platform should allow you to:

  • Set up an instant conference bridge with your crisis response team using a secure invitation-only conference call
  • Host a call without PINs or dial-in numbers
  • Send an invitation to chosen contacts and have them placed in the conference bridge as soon as the call is started
  • Record and download the call along with an attendee list, for auditing and sharing purposes

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Emergency Document Accessibility

Your emergency mass notification platform must provide a home for all your essential crisis management and business continuity documents. This will include your business continuity plan, specific crisis playbooks, checklists and action cards. In fact, all the documents you may need in an emergency.

Your emergency comms system should have the ability to share entire documents and also be able to annotate and share specific pages with your staff.

Emergency Document Accessibility Considerations

Ideally all the documents should be available offline so they can be accessed even when connectivity fails. The documents must appear in both the desktop console version and on your smartphone app.

Emergency Document Accessibility Functionality Checklist

Functionality of document accessibility in your emergency mass notification platform should allow staff to:

  • Share business continuity plans and other vital crisis and emergency documents with your team
  • Access documents when offline
  • Share documents with specific groups, allowing everyone to have the materials they need
  • Annotate, highlight and extract relevant pages before sharing with staff

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Emergency Audio Hotline

In an emergency, the ability to post audio message updates on a designated phone line can be very beneficial. AI powered technology now allows text-to-voice messages to be created at the touch of a keyboard. Keystrokes can be converted into many different languages, voices and accents.

Stakeholders are provided with a dedicated hotline phone number for them to call for the latest information. Different numbers, containing specific information can be assigned to staff, the general public, journalists or families and friends.

Audio Hotline Considerations

The system should also have a voicemail option so callers can leave messages and a PIN protect option if material is of a confidential nature. Stakeholders should be able to sign up to hotline alerts notifying them when a new message is available.

Emergency Audio Hotline Functionality Checklist

Your platform should support audio hotline messages allowing you to:

  • Make updates immediately available during an incident via a phone hotline
  • Instanct convert typed messages into a voice message
  • Capture voicemails and provide some form of message management system
  • Operate your emergency hotline remotely

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Pricing

Inevitably price will inform your choice of emergency mass notification system. Those platforms with more features may be more expensive, but you need to consider if these are features you really require.

Many mass alerting systems have come on the market recently and are based on more contemporary architecture than the older models and are far less expensive than some of the more established providers.

Shop around, most providers will offer a free trail with a member of their staff taking you through a demo.

Audio Hotline Considerations

Shop around, most providers will offer a free trail with a member of their staff taking you through a demo.

Use the above checklists to make sure the features you require are included in their offering. Then compare prices, after care and the ability of their systems to integrate with any systems you currently use.

Nowadays, mass notification systems are far more affordable and should offer a pricing structure to fit within your budget.

A emergency mass notification system must be a key part of your company’s emergency response. You can’t afford to be without one. Choose well.

Pricing Considerations Checklist

When exploring pricing for emergency mass communication software, factor in the following considerations:

  • Find out if you can trial the platform for free.
  • Explore whether it's a one time purchase, or a rolling subscription model.
  • If it's a subscription model, work out what is an isn't included in the price. Especially if there are quotas on usage, you don't want to be stung with unplanned additional costs.
  • Enquire in to potential discount options, like paying up front for a 12 month subscription.
  • Ideally, you want comparable pricing models, so you can see which platform offers the best value for money. Which might not always be the cheapest option.

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