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by Rick Wimberly: Best practices for emergency notification programs

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Lessons from an Emergency Notification F-Bomb
February 11, 2013
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Last week, residents of Beverly, MA received an automated notification message from the Department of Public Works with a little extra "color" to it. 

A department representative recorded a message informing residents of a parking ban in effect for snow removal purposes.  The representative got a bit tongue-tied towards the end, and in frustration, dropped the F-bomb. This version of the recording inadvertently made its way to the public (and to the news media).  

We can all likely sympathize with the folks at Beverly DPW.  It's a pervasive fear--goofing up a mass notification message or hitting a wrong button at 2:00 a.m.  Events like this can serve as reminders to us all.  Here are some key best practices that will keep you out of trouble and out of the spotlight.

Record a message first before completing other required information for launching a notification.  This suggestion may or may not apply depending on how your notification system works precisely, but in many cases, you'll have the option of recording the message before other required system fields are completed.  This is often backwards to the way administrators view the process and the tendency is to complete everything else in a scenario, then record the message.  This leaves open the possibility of accidentally sending an improper recording.  We suggest you reverse this process, record the message first, then listen to it and confirm it's OK.  From there, complete the additional required information.  This way, your message is verified before a notification launch is possible.

Assume you are "always on."  I'll never forget the day our pastor slipped away to the men's room during church announcement time.  Unfortunately, he was wearing his wireless microphone and it was very much still ON.  The sound people scrambled to shut off the live feed, but not before the congregation received an extra "blessing" from the pastor that morning.  The lesson?  Assume you are "always on" and that what you are saying WILL be heard by someone.   

Delete a goofed up recording from the source library.  If your notification system allows you to save recorded messages for future use, make sure you delete any goofed up recordings so they won't be accessible (I'm not referring to deleting "the evidence" of a launched notification, just a recording that might be used in the future).  In fact, you should do this before proceeding with the notification launch if at all possible.

Do a test notification prior to a public launch.  It's a good idea to send a test notification to a few people before launching to the general public.  That way, any issues will be identified before it reaches citizens' ears. 

Send alerts to priority recipients first.  Again, this depends on the features offered by your particular system, but some solutions offer the ability to designate priority recipients.  While the goal of this feature is usually to allow a notification to be sent to "higher up" political types before everyone else hears it (Mayors, Chiefs, etc.) we recommend you NOT do this if possible.  The priority people we want are individuals who might identify message problems quickly (without losing their minds), then tell us so the notification can potentially be stopped.  

Proactively apologize for goof-ups.  In most cases, it is best just to own up to any mistakes that do happen. Don't "hope it will all go away," but instead proactively offer sincere apologies and communicate steps taken to ensure it won't happen again.  Most people understand public safety folks are people, too.  Mistakes happen.  They can forgive if you're open and humble. 

Do you have any funny (or not so funny) examples of alert and warning bloopers?  We'd love to hear from you, along with any lessons learned.  Thanks for all you do to keep us safe.





Lorin Bristow
Galain Solutions, Inc.





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