Disaster notification tools get a boost

In the aftermath of the Asian tsunami late last year and a rash of earthquakes off California’s coast in June, businesses and governments are racing to roll out more-sophisticated electronic messaging systems to alert and guide people who face possible disaster.

However, corporate investment in these technologies need not be restricted to disaster preparedness.

Greg Radner, senior vice president of corporate executive services at Thomson Financial Inc. in New York, said his firm has been using a mass e-mail service from EnvoyWorldWide Inc. in Bedford, Mass., for the past three years. The system lets Thomson send notifications to users of its online investor-relations services.

Radner said the e-mail service issues about 8 million messages per month through any electronic device to users who sign up for the service via e-mail. The system can also be used for business continuity should disaster strike.

Sense of urgency

There is a sense of urgency among those preparing for the unthinkable that’s spurring adoption of such technologies. By the end of 2007, 75 percent of Global 2,000 companies will have emergency notification systems for employee communication in the event of a crisis and as part of disaster recovery plans, according to a recent report by Gartner Inc.

Financial services firms have been leading the way in alerting employees and customers to industry news and earnings and in complying with Sarbanes-Oxley Act requirements, according to Gartner analysts.

“Some auditors are pushing the fact that companies need some availability of these services of business continuity for SOX compliance,” said Gartner analyst Roberta J. Witty.

Gartner analyst Christopher Baum said mass-messaging technologies can also be used as two-way communication tools to “help build your recovery process.”

After the California temblors, governments started purchasing mass-notification services at an increasing rate, in part because those earthquakes exposed flaws in several states’ emergency notification systems, Baum said.

The June quakes prompted tsunami warning centers in Hawaii and Alaska to issue alerts and advisories up and down the Pacific Coast. The West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, issued the first warning of the West Coast quakes, from Mexico to Canada, but the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, said there was no tsunami watch or warning in effect. The conflicting messages and jammed phone lines created some confusion among state and local officials. San Francisco officials said they learned of the tsunami warning on TV, reports stated.

“These systems could definitely use debugging. There were several problems noted in these last warnings,” said Paul Whitmore, chief scientist at the West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.

Kenneth Murphy, director of the state of Oregon’s emergency management services in Salem, said 911 emergency communications centers are often overcome by calls during a disaster. “We’ve got to have one message that goes out over one system, no matter whose message it is,” Murphy said.

Murphy said IP technology may help with increasing the bandwidth of today’s jammed phone lines.

Like Murphy, Celeste Cook, director of the Office of Emergency Management for Santa Clara County, Calif., is looking for new messaging technology. She said her office is about to take bids for a mass-notification network, thanks to funds from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“The big question is, Where do I want to put my vulnerability? If you choose to use land lines, then your vulnerability is land lines. If you choose the Internet, then you’re banking the Internet won’t go down,” Cook said. “We’re going to look at a system that has the most redundancy.”

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