It’s been quite the winter so far, with a new major storm plowing through the country seemingly every week. It’s not just affecting northern climates; southern states have had some of the most severe weather in generations. A sign of this unusually harsh season: 1.5 billion messages were sent using Blackboard Connect in 2013, up from 1.3 billion in 2012.

Appropriately, I recently had the opportunity to write an article for Disaster Recovery Journal about how organizations can use an emergency or mass notification system (EMNS) to notify key personnel in minutes and send critical information about an event, like an impending blizzard, to large numbers of affected employees. With all this recent severe weather, I wanted to share a portion of this article: my Top 10 Mass Notification Best Practices for Emergencies.

  1. Create a communication plan in advance. Before winter storm season, develop or review and revise your emergency communication plan. Include all departments and identify decision makers and first responders. Determine the length of time for specific actions as detailed in the plan. Set a timeline for the order in which actions need to be put into effect. Implement security measures, and establish protocols to test all procedures and equipment on a regular basis.
  2. Establish a single point of contact. During and immediately after the onset of a winter weather emergency, every second counts. So there won’t be time to determine a spokesperson. Designate an emergency communications director who will rapidly assess the need for communications support and identify, acquire, and deploy resources to support critical operations. Publicize the fact that this person will be the primary point of contact during winter weather or other emergencies.
  3. Include all types of communication. No single method of communication will reach everyone, so plan on using voice, email, and instant messaging, as well as Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Extreme winter weather poses significant challenges for those with disabilities. Create and maintain a separate list of those with special needs and send targeted messages. Deploying a multi-channel communications approach that includes mobile access ensures the broadest and most timely dissemination of information.
  4. Develop backups and contingency plans. During the storm, communication networks and utilities may be disrupted and key staff members may be unavailable. For each communication task, assign a backup who can assume the activity if the primary person is unable to perform it. Prepare your employees for the possibility and educate them about preparedness. Before a storm, remind your employees to have a winter survival kit in their cars.
  5. Promote and test your EMNS. Include information about emergency communications on the company intranet and in corporate documentation, like an employee handbook. Train, cross-train, and re-train key personnel, so everyone is prepared to respond quickly. Twice a year, test your EMNS, enterprise wide, against its stated service level agreement. This will also provide an opportunity for recipients to update personal contact information.
  6. Practice makes perfect. While critical in an emergency, a mass notification system can also be used to communicate with all stakeholders—employees, customers, and partners—on an ongoing basis. As part of a corporate communication strategy, businesses can send customers appointment reminders, late payment notices, surveys, newsletters, scheduled maintenance notifications, and product announcements. Communicate with employees about performance management, company events, benefits programs, training opportunities, and surveys.
  7. Create the right message. Speak with a strong, authoritative voice, and keep your message short. While a minute is probably too long, 39-45 seconds is just right. During the emergency, every second counts, so pre-record messages if possible. Your message should be simple, clear, and concise. Use the same person to record each message related to an event. Continuity breeds assurance.
  8. Work with state and local agencies and media. During the storm, get up-to-the-minute information about weather conditions, travel advisories, and accidents and road closures that you can pass on to employees.
  9. Distribute messages rapidly over multiple channels. While the storm rages, communicate via landline or mobile phone, email, or SMS text messaging. Because some communication avenues may be unavailable, use a public social network, like Facebook or Twitter to share information and address common questions. Along with storm conditions, communicate on an ongoing basis with employees regarding power outages, facilities closings, computer system availability, and avoiding unnecessary travel.
  10. Analyze success of processes and procedures. Once the storm has passed, continue to communicate travel conditions, utility restoration, system availability, and office openings. Debrief stakeholders and review processes and performance to determine if the plan needs any updating.

Today, it’s not a question of if an organization will use an EMNS, but rather when and how they use it. And established best practices ensure that critical communications are sent and received anywhere, anytime. With winter and the hazardous conditions the season can bring upon us, businesses can now be more in control when an storm strikes with the ability to alert, notify, and protect their most valuable assets—their employees.

Reprinted with permission from the Disaster Recovery Journal

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