You nod—now you won't waste a trip to the office. But you're also puzzled—if the network is down, where did this message come from?
Welcome to today's world of emergency notification services (ENS). In the dark ages (that is, a couple of decades ago) an enterprise that wanted to provide emergency notification would acquire a specialized computer that would sit in a server closet. When needed, it would phone its list and play a message—unless, of course, the emergency involved that same closet. Back then, if one item failed you might not have gotten notice of an office closing or of a dangerous flash flood, or potentially life-saving evacuation advice.
Today's ENS industry does not depend on specific pieces of fallible hardware. It's based on the Internet-accessible network of interconnected data centers, backup data centers, and other redundant facilities that today we just call the cloud, says Alexander Tabb, head of the , a consulting firm in New York. The fact that the cloud exits in no one place means no single broken pipe is going to shut it down—and that security is why so many of us have taken to storing personal data there, in case disaster befalls our computers and tabletop backup drives. While Steven Spielberg might be able to envision a disaster that would crash the cloud, for mundane business purposes it can be considered safe.
Indeed, disaster planning in connection with ENS usually involves three basic assumptions, says Tabb: Some element of the organization's leadership will continue to function; those leaders will have some mechanism for implementing their decisions; some form of access to the Internet will remain. The first two assumptions may require some forethought but the latter assumption is fairly safe since there has never been a national outage in the U.S., he notes. "If the Internet goes down completely there is nothing you can do, anyway," Tabb says.
"I heard of not one hiccup involving an ENS vendor during Hurricane Sandy," Roberta Witty, an analyst at market-research firm Gartner, says. "But there were issues involving the cellphone infrastructure."
Modern ENS service involves uploading a list of s to an ENS vendor, whose cloud-based system (with appropriate backup and stand-by facilities) will transmit messages to the list when commanded by the subscriber. While the services can call phones and play messages the old way, the preferred medium today is texting, which is more likely to continue working during an emergency. That said, there's probably an ENS vendor offering to connect to anything for which an interface can be rigged: email, pagers, satellite phones, TTY devices, fax machines, radios, instant messaging, desktop alert systems, social media and Web pages, PBXs, Blackberries, Twitter, facilities management, security and fire systems, public address systems, digital signs, flashing beacons, sirens, foghorns, and (for the truly retro) operator-assisted long-distance phone calls.
ENS got an unfortunate boost from the Virginia Tech campus shootings in 2007, as ENS thereafter became standard for campuses, Witty says. Today there are more than 50 vendors offering a dizzying array of powerful services. However, that power is a problem, sources agree, since subscribers are often tempted to use the services for ordinary announcements about things like insurance enrollment deadlines. That blunts the impact of the messages, so that, when a real emergency rolls around, they're likely to be ignored.
"Training is important," says Tabb, "not just for the people who send the messages, and for the people who must decide what to send, to whom, and under what circumstances, but for the recipients too, since they must be trained on the importance of the messages."
The other big concern: making sure that, during an emergency, there is enough power for the system to send messages and for recipients to get them. Electrical power from the grid is likely to fail in major emergencies, and most cell towers run on it. A tower may have a backup diesel generator, but when it runs out of fuel (probably the next day) someone will have to arrive with a refill. For a given cell tower in a given emergency that may be a trivial chore or an impossibility. With the fuel gone, the tower's backup batteries should keep them going another 12 to 36 hours, Tabb says.
ENS is likely to become even fancier and more pervasive. Vendors are working on enhancements such as the ability to interact with specific recipients in order to, for instance, advise them what to do, given their location and the current situation. And if the current situation is a little fuzzy, it will be able to solicit input from the users, asking them to report what they see, possibly by sending pictures. In the background, it will be filtering through social media traffic, commercial news feeds, and whatever else is likely to provide the big picture.
Or, if it's just a broken pipe, it can tell you to stay home before you've wasted the commute.