Author, Darren Chalmers-Stevens, Group Chief Operating Officer at CriticalArc
If you have a duty of care for lots of people, it can be reassuring to know that your organization is equipped with an advanced system for rapid mass communications.
It can be less reassuring to find out that your system doesn’t work, or not as well as you assumed at a time of critical importance. There are several reasons why mass communication systems perform poorly, or fail completely, during major incidents. It’s worth understanding what those reasons are because they are surprisingly common and they can all now be addressed.
First, there are technical issues. Mass communication systems often rely on complex technologies and infrastructure, which can be prone to failure. Those technology weaknesses might not be apparent day-to-day, so it’s only at the moment of use that things go wrong – just when they need to work. Network outages, software bugs, sub-processor issues, API/SDK failures, and hardware failures are all potential weak links that can undermine systems. There are many potential technical issues that can prevent messages from being delivered, or can cause them to be delivered late, or in a corrupted format that can’t be read.
Similarly, systems can suffer from inadequate reach and alerts can fail to reach the intended recipients because of technology limitations or out-of-date data. For example, SMS messages will not be delivered to individuals who do not have mobile phones, or who have opted out of receiving text messages.
And then there are the policy and procedural issues, around how mass communication systems are used. And again, there are often underlying problems that don’t get addressed because nobody notices them. They don’t become serious until a moment of crisis.
Information overload for users is a perfect example. If mass communications systems are used too often, for minor issues, users will start to ignore or overlook the messages. It’s the ‘cry wolf’ syndrome – and you only discover that people have become complacent when a real emergency occurs and your alerts fail to get through.
The same thing can happen if alerts are not well-targeted, and messages are not relevant to the recipient’s situation and needs. In international settings, that can include being in the right language. During moments of crisis, the best way to communicate with someone is in their mother tongue.
The more closely targeted the message is to the individual, the more likely they are to respond.
A good analogy is when you get on an airplane and the air stewardess draws your attention to the plastic card in the back of the seat in front of you. They typically state that in the highly unlikely event of the aircraft making a forced landing on water, there are simple steps you must follow. They do this because they understand that an individual’s ability to think and act rationally during a crisis is significantly reduced. The more precise and concise you can be, the better the outcomes.
And crucially, there is the issue of how the system is controlled and used. Mass communication systems often require significant resources, including personnel, technology, and funding, to operate effectively. If these resources are not available, the system may not be able to deliver messages to the intended audience in a timely or effective manner.
All of these issues are ones that I’ve come across in my work with universities, hospitals, and major employers around the world, and I’ve seen how they can all be solved, relatively easily.
The technical weak links can be addressed by using a robust, multi-channel platform with redundancy designed in to ensure that if one communications channel fails, back-ups will work and alerts will still get through.
User preferences can also be met, with messages and notifications sent not just to phones, but to laptops.
The issue of user response – often the hardest to control – can also be solved with a new approach that makes mass communications one element of a multi-function solution.
Solutions that include functions that are designed for regular use encourage high levels of user engagement. This is one of the strengths of our SafeZone solution.
SafeZone also allows messages and alerts to be targeted precisely to the people they are intended for – by location, by role, or by any pre-defined criteria. So irrelevant and untargeted notifications can be avoided.
A good example of this would be tactical comms to specific groups of users, for example mobilizing first aiders or fire wardens. Having those users receive a request to check-in, and share their locations allows further instructions to be given based on their role and location, relevant to an event unfolding.
This capability is particularly important when critical incidents are being managed, such as an active threat, a natural disaster, or an international terrorist incident. At the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, for example, we had customers with staff and students spread across Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, all needing to be evacuated in real-time.
For staff, students and service users the SafeZone app is a trusted source of advice, help, and direct contact with the security team day-to-day, at the touch of a button.
Because of this, users are familiar with it, they value it, but they are not complacent about it. Planned exercises to test systems and processes should also feature as part of your robust preparations. To ensure the best outcomes, it’s critical to have teams that are trained to use the system, who can efficiently send the mass comms. And your service users also need to be familiar with the notifications system and need to know how to do what is requested of them.
That’s the sweet spot that any mass communications solution needs to hit.