Critical messaging: facing down the storm

Sam Fenwick takes a look at the big trends in the world of critical messaging, with a focus on population or company-wide alerts and paging

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One of the biggest recent developments in the world of mass alerting was a change to the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC), which requires all members of the European Union and the European Economic Area to have a Reverse 112 system in place by June 2022 that can use mobile phone operators’ networks (or alternative electronic means, such as a national app, if it has the same coverage and capacity to reach end-users) to send alerts to warn their populations about crises and threats. It is worth noting here that any alternative to the use of the mobile network(s) shouldn’t require users to log into an app or to login or register with the authorities or the application provider, and users should automatically receive an SMS upon entering a country which would tell them how to access public warnings.

Given this requirement, it was interesting to see the recent news (as reported in our Who, What, Where section) that Iceland has deployed a national alerting system from Everbridge, which uses existing telecom infrastructure, with no need for end-user registration or opt-in (Greece, the Netherlands and Sweden are already using Everbridge’s capabilities in this regard). Imad Mouline, chief technology officer for Everbridge, says this is meant to cover “residents and tourists alike [and] allows for multi-lingual messaging – we can determine extremely accurately not only the location of the devices that are connected in an area but also the national origin of the SIM cards associated with the devices and then with the push of a single button send out the appropriate message in the appropriate language to the appropriate device”. The need to be able to alert tourists is particularly acute, given that roughly two million visit Iceland every year, compared with its native population of 360,000 people.

While Mouline says the changes to the EECC don’t specify as to whether a national alerting system should be able to continue communicating with the population after the initial wave of notifications has been sent, he sees this as best practice. “If you’ve asked people to evacuate an area, we suggest that you can verify as quickly as possible that people are indeed moving away from the area and that any people coming into the area [who missed the] initial notification because they weren’t there also get that notification automatically through a geofence. [You also need to] have the ability to see that people are moving out of the area and [to be able to] communicate with those that receive the initial message. If you need to issue a correction, a follow-up or an all-clear, [these abilities] are key [and if] you can’t keep a footprint of who was there and received a message, you won’t be able to perform any of those actions.”

While the ability to contact the population is important, Mouline also highlights the benefits of having additional alerts that people can opt in to. “[While] I would like to get alerted if I’m in an area that is impacted by a critical event, as a parent [I] probably [would be] more worried about being alerted if something happens in an area where my children are, whether it’s their school or something else, so for me to register/opt in to those locations where they happen to be is probably more important to me than my own safety.”

While Mouline notes the importance of preparation for those natural disasters that have early warning signs (such as a hurricane, with a path that can be tracked and predicted with the aid of satellite imagery), he adds that in some cases “how you handle the recovery can have as much of – or, in some cases, more of – an impact than the actual event that caused the issue”.

He gives the example of Cyclone Fani, which caused over a million people to be evacuated in India in May following extensive warning by the government using its recently implemented public warning system. According to official estimates, 64 people lost their lives; however, during the 1999 cyclone which hit the same area, 9,658 people were killed. Mouline says that during the recovery the authorities sent messages targeted at farmers and with differing messages based on whether the recipients were in cities or out in the countryside – “letting people know what to do to avoid malaria and dengue fever and how to handle livestock. These were very targeted messages that have nothing to do with the actual immediate physical danger to physical things or people during the cyclone itself, [because if you can’t] deal with the issues around diseases or ultimately the care and feeding of livestock and other animals [during the recovery], the consequences could be far worse than the cyclone’s immediate impact.”

Going back to first principles, Mouline says that “communication is key across every stage of a critical event” – the warning, risk assessment, response, management, resolution and recovery – and that “communication with all stakeholders whoever and wherever they happen to be is also incredibly key”.

No Sharpies required 

To make all this a bit more tangible, I recently was shown some of the capabilities of Everbridge’s Critical Event Management (CEM) Platform in conjunction with its Visual Command Centre (VCC) software – the latter has been recently introduced to the European market – by Scott Morrison, VP of product marketing, and Greg Mummah, its product marketing manager. CEM is intended to address organisations’ need for a single operating picture when dealing with an event or incident, replace a fragmented/siloed approach and remove the need for employees to collate all the information together to create actionable intelligence. Mummah says the system is designed to warn organisations whenever an event has the potential to adversely affect one of their assets or something else that they care about, such as their supply chain.

He runs me through a scenario in which a hurricane is approaching the US. “The first thing we’re letting you know is that you have assets that are in the potential risk radius of this particular event,” he says, before he shows me a map that gives the expected path of the hurricane and indicates that the hypothetical customer’s equally hypothetical assets in Charlotte are going to be hit by it in the next 24 hours, and that if it keeps to its current track it could impact those in Atlanta.

Mummah adds that one of the platform’s capabilities allows the user, in the case of a critical event, to activate a predefined crisis management plan tailored to the type of event in question. That then brings up a list of appropriate (and, again, predefined) tasks; for example, pushing instructions to staff on how to deal with the incident, or simply telling personnel who can’t assist in dealing with it to stay at home, which can be launched individually “as you see fit”. These can be used, for example, to provide employees with details about the emergency, along with any supporting documentation – from a hazardous materials datasheet to evacuation plans. It also features an encrypted messaging (both text and images) mobile app.

Returning to our simulated hurricane, having launched his crisis management plan and its associated tasks, Mummah is now receiving responses from the ‘contacted employees’ – “so these responses, whether they were able to successfully complete a task or not, are all collated back in my operations centre so my team knows in real time where preparation is going well and where maybe we have some issues so that we can focus [on the latter]”.

In addition, you can use Everbridge’s traditional capabilities through the platform to tell those employees whose places of work are in the affected areas not to come into work, and when they will be told these have reopened. “If you are in manufacturing or dependent on a supply chain, we’ll tell you which supply chain assets are also in the radius of that event; we can also monitor routes, ports, rail lines, really anything that can be included as part of your supply chain, so we’ll let you know this particular supplier or supply route is at risk,” says Mummah. He also shows how the system can be used to monitor traffic and evacuation routes to guide the user organisation’s own evacuees and help them avoid gridlocked highways, even using feeds from traffic cameras to confirm the flow (or lack of it) of vehicles.

He adds: “[In] a severe situation, let’s say the storm partially removes the roof of one of your facilities, your employees can take the mobile app and tap the SOS button, and that’s going to start streaming live audio and video directly from their device, [which can be immediately seen by those monitoring the system]. From there we can provide them with guidance” – which is particularlyimportant in situations where emergency services are so busy that they can’t respond to every call.

Of course, during events such as this there can be a lot of worried executives and major stakeholders, all clamouring to be kept in the loop. “Traditionally, you’d have people writing emails and filling out reports in Word templates [to keep them informed]; we think it’s more important to task your response people with saving lives and protecting property, so we provide some automated capabilities within the platform to keep your stakeholders up to date.”

In apprehension how like a god 

Mummah then switches to the live Everbridge platform. Zooming out to get a view of the events and incidents that are unfolding around the world is a somewhat giddy and awe-inspiring experience, while at the same time being strangely familiar to anyone who has played strategy computer games such as Civilization or X-COM. In our industry, we talk a lot about situational awareness – this is it refined and distilled into something almost god-like. This feeling is made all the more acute when Mummah and Morrison give me a feel for the vast number of different data sources that were used to create the graphics I’m seeing.

“We have sources that report on events just about everywhere in the world,” says Mummah. “Probably our best source is ourselves; we employ a pair of risk monitoring centres that are monitoring risk on a global basis that includes 13 different languages and a variety of different capabilities to view into social media, public media sources, even emergency medical services (EMS), and fire and police dispatch systems – in certain cities, we are plugged into those as well, so we can monitor with a pretty high degree of accuracy any type of event that’s happening in the world.”

Morrison adds that Everbridge monitors about 20,000 news sources on a daily basis and uses machine learning to categorise and de-duplicate them, though human analysts also play a role. They typically deal with situations where the algorithms struggle to de-duplicate an incident, when an incident has to be narrowed down to a more exact location or to determine its severity. One of the key things about the system is while customers get the same information feeds, they can customise how it responds to events, particularly in terms of the severity of the events that are flagged up and their proximity to assets and employees. “For example, for a tsunami you might want a kilometre range, but for an active assailant you might want something much narrower,” says Morrison. While the system doesn’t predict as such, it does show forward-looking intelligence, such as planned events that might have an impact on traffic and supply routes.

From many to one 

So far, we have concentrated on large-scale incidents, but what of those that might only affect a single individual in an organisation? Returning to my conversation with Mouline, he says that Everbridge has capabilities in this regard, such as the ability to combine employees’ travel itineraries and critical event notifications across the globe to address organisations’ duty of care in such situations. There are also the hazards that employees can face when lone working (look out for an article on this in November’s Land Mobile) – Mouline uses the example of a clerk opening up or closing down a bank branch at the start or end of the day and says Everbridge is addressing this through its recently announced partnership with RiskBand, a provider of wearable, live-monitored professional safety devices, which provide two-way voice, user profile data, images and geolocation in near real time to organisations’ security operations centres. These will be integrated with Everbridge’s Safety Connection platform, and the company is looking to introduce additional wearables into the marketplace, and integrate further with IoT devices, sensors and smart building technology as part of its work in this area.

Mouline highlights the value of having user profile information given that the risks can be higher during critical events for those who depend on electricity, oxygen canisters or insulin injections.

The pager vs app debate 

Of course, here at Critical Communications Today, we tend to focus on the people who run towards danger rather than those who should be running away from it. To address this balance, let’s take a look at the other side of critical messaging – the use of pagers and similar devices to mobilise first-responders and medical staff.

Swissphone’s head of international sales, Graeme Hull, says: “In recent years, POCSAG (Post Office Code Standardisation Advisory Group) paging systems have been newly tendered and some have already been put into operation. In Germany, three to four tenders (counties and federal states) are published annually; in Belgium and Holland the national paging networks have been renewed with more than 600 base stations in the last two years. In Austria a regionwide POCSAG paging network is going to be implemented; four to six departments (SDIS/regions) in France are currently under construction; and Swissphone has gained POCSAG networks in North America over the past 12 months. In the mentioned countries and regions, the Ministries of the Interiors have carried out several studies confirming the value of investing in POCSAG pager networks for the next 10 to 15 years. Otherwise they would not have made such a decision.”

One of the most interesting controversies to emerge of late is around that most loved of British institutions, the National Health Service (NHS). Back in February, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock referred to pagers as being “outdated” and “archaic”, and according to the BBC described email and mobile phones as being a “more secure, quicker and cheaper way to communicate”, and has ordered pagers’ removal for non-emergency communications by the end of 2021. In addition, smartphone-based apps, which have similar functionality to WhatsApp (but have been designed to meet the requirements of medical professionals), such as Medic Bleep and Forward, are gaining in popularity and claim to offer impressive savings. For example, a study by the Kent Surrey Sussex Academic Health Science Network found that Forward could save a Trust £922m a year in cash and non-cash savings, while Forward’s own research indicates that the app can save doctors 43 minutes per shift through reduced use of other communication methods, including paper.

However, it seems that Hancock and his advisors may not have been adequately briefed on modern paging technologies, given that his department’s announcement incorrectly claimed that pagers offer only one-way communications. The announcement is also less cut and dried than it might first appear as it also says that “NHS trusts will be allowed to keep some pagers for emergency situations, such as when Wi-Fi fails or when other forms of communication are unavailable”. This doesn’t give a key point justice – the resilience that pagers can offer. For example, PageOne, the provider of paging services to the NHS (and which has a long-standing and recently expanded partnership with Swissphone), offers a two-way Triple Resilience paging service that works over GSM, a wide-area network and onsite coverage, and the company also supports multi-channel messaging which combines paging with alerting via SMS text message, smart app, voice and email.

Despite this furore, Hull says Swissphone has “been fortunate to win several prestigious projects in healthcare recently, particularly in the NHS in the UK. These networks are designed to deliver high-speed emergency voice and data messages to assist medical teams to respond to emergencies as quickly as possible.”

In addition, he says: “We see that paging will continue to play a vital part in the overall communications strategy of most hospitals. We have also achieved further milestones in the area of public safety: Saarland is the first German federal state to use the s.ONE resource management solution for the feedback, encryption and remote programming of its terminals. Furthermore, the State of Lower Austria is currently upgrading its alarm network to the latest Swissphone radio network generation. Swissphone is most successful with projects where a core of mission-critical users need to be reached even if all third-party infrastructure is down (cellular networks, internet, power). We provide the channels to deliver these messages (paging, messaging-gateway) along with the middleware solution that manages these alerts (I.SEARCH, s.GUARD).”

It is also worth noting that there is nothing stopping pagers from being used in combination with the latest wireless protocols, as demonstrated by Swissphone’s decision to release the RES.Q LTE pager, which uses LTE-M and NB-IoT for its feedback channel and hybrid alerting, in combination with POCSAG, and Hull highlights the advantages of using LTE-M and NB-IoT over LoRa and Sigfox, given that the former use licensed frequencies as opposed to licence-exempt, and use SIM cards to establish connections, which offers greater security.

We have covered a lot of ground, going from the technology to alert whole populations during disasters to that used to allow organisations to better cope with emergencies be they big or small, along with the use of pagers to reach first-responders and medical personnel. While news coverage of hurricanes, riots and other incidents have made us all too aware of the sheer power of nature and the hazards that we have to navigate in this uncertain age, it is reassuring to know just how much help is on hand from both new and tried-and-tested technology.


Critical Communications Today

Critical Communications Today is dedicated to the global critical communications market. It aims to inspire and inform the critical communications community and is published with the support of TCCA. Initially launched in 2010 as TETRA Today, this publication provides technical advice, authoritative editorial and commentary spanning all areas of mission-critical comms.
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