Speech in the Path of the Storm

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Jeff Suggs has more to worry about than the average person when a hurricane or tropical storm strikes. Before one does, as the emergency management coordinator for La Porte, Texas—a small Gulf Coast city home to about 35,000 people—he’s in the unenviable position of quickly preparing the members of his entire community.

In his current role, which he has held for the past six years, Suggs is expected to handle anything that could be considered hazardous to the public’s health and safety. Much of his work between June and late October, though, centers on hurricane preparedness.

With the exception of 2009, at least one major storm, some with disastrous effects on the area, has hit La Porte every year since he took over the post: In 2005 it was Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita; in 2007 it was Tropical Storm Erin; and in 2008 it was Hurricane Ike. Add to that, “Every season, there are a lot of other storms that are offshore that we still have to gear up for,” he says.

And when it’s time for Suggs to prep for a major storm, speech technologies in the form of mass-message delivery and outbound interactive voice response (IVR) systems have become trusted tools. Long gone are the days when emergency managers in municipalities like La Porte retrieved phone lists and manually placed calls to all listed numbers. That process was too long and cumbersome, and often people couldn’t be reached because they weren’t home, forcing callers to leave messages and try again later. 

Now, Suggs uses a mass-message delivery system from Blackboard Connect to keep residents informed and to mobilize relief workers for everything from preparation and possible evacuation to cleanup and recovery. He creates one message that within minutes is delivered to tens of thousands of homes and businesses throughout the city.

That was the case in the summer of 2008, when Ike battered the Texas Gulf Coast with sustained winds of 110 miles an hour and a storm surge of more than 21 feet. Suggs first used Blackboard Connect to urge residents to evacuate; as the storm raged on and during the weeks that followed, he used the system almost daily to set curfews, deploy personnel and volunteers, and manage the cleanup and recovery. He sent a total of 227,000 messages to residents during that one storm alone.

“There was not one problem with [Blackboard Connect] during Ike at all,” Suggs says. “It’s very proven technology that works well for us.”

In fact, Suggs calls Blackboard Connect “the second biggest asset after our people” during a crisis. “It’s easily our primary tool for hurricane season,” he adds.

And sending a message with the system is pain-free. He simply logs onto Blackboard Connect’s Web server, uploads the message—which can be entered as text or audio—selects the recipients from a stored contact list, and then clicks the “send” button. He can even specify whether the message should be delivered immediately or scheduled for a later time. Messages can be sent to landline phones, mobile phones, email accounts, and fax machines, and will even reach recipients through social media sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.

Though Blackboard Connect is widely used throughout Texas for such emergencies—150 municipalities representing 600,000 households in the state reportedly use the company’s mass notification platform to keep residents safe, informed, and connected—the company is not the only supplier of such technologies. Many other vendors offer similar systems, and a number of IVR systems suppliers also have added similar capabilities to their outbound IVR and predictive dialer technologies.

Text or Text-to-Speech

With these systems, users have several options for composing messages. For messages delivered by phone, operators can record and upload their own messages to the vendors’ servers, or type a message that can be converted into an audio file using a text-to-speech (TTS) engine. Some companies offer prepared, templated messages that need only be adjusted slightly for any given situation.

Suggs could use TTS with his Blackboard solution, but instead prefers to make his own recordings that can then be uploaded to Blackboard Connect’s servers for delivery. The whole process takes about 10 minutes.

“Most of the time what we’re doing is a personal thing,” Suggs says. “TTS is good if you want to get something out in a big hurry, but for most people we like to do our own recordings.”

In either case, Suggs recommends keeping the messages short and sweet. “No one wants to hear me going on for two or three minutes,” he says.

And because most systems are available in a software-as-a-service model, users can record and send messages from any location, whether a hardened alert operations center or an evacuation post miles from the affected zone. “As long as you have access to a phone line and Internet connection, you can send out your message,” says Travis Sowders, a Blackboard Connect representative. “If you have an on-premises system and something happens, your message can’t go out.”

Secrets to Success

Once the content of the message has been established, the success of any of these technologies really depends on several factors, according to system vendors. For example, when a hurricane has a municipality in its sights, speed and reliability are of utmost importance. Most systems can reach hundreds to hundreds of thousands of recipients in a matter of minutes, usually with little more than the push of a button or two.

“With our system you can deliver to millions of people,” says Frank Hoen, CEO of software company Netpresenter, a provider of emergency alert systems. “Depending on the capacity of the telecoms, it can all be done in real time or staggered within about 10 minutes.”

The same can be said of MIR3, another mass notification platform provider. Maurice Burrell, the company’s director of product management, says there’s no limit to the number of people who can be reached with the MIR3 product. “Through our six data centers, you can contact hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of minutes,” he notes.

Linked to the issue of speed, governments need to know their messages were received. For that reason, most systems come with a real-time reporting function that can provide a detailed summary of all of the contacts made and the outcome. All of these systems can detect and report when they have reached a live person, answering machine, voicemail, operator intercept tone, or busy signal.

Some systems, like MIR3’s inEnterprise system and MicroAutomation’s MicroMessenger self-service IVR solution, can request recipients to enter a code on their phone keypads or speak a phrase to acknowledge receipt of the message. “If you do not get a receipt, it should automatically send the message to another channel and keep escalating until it receives [confirmation],” Burrell says.

Some systems even contain speech recognition that will allow recipients to record their own replies. One aspect of MIR3’s system is the ability for a recipient to respond with his own voice—e.g., “I’m trapped on the fourth floor.” “That’s a very powerful tool,” Burrell says.

Few solutions on the market today offer that capability, but many vendors have said speech recognition is something they’ve included in their product road maps going forward. 

David van Everen, vice president of product management at Five9, a provider of virtual call center and hosted predictive dialing software, takes it even one step further. He says systems should be able to provide recipients with the option of pressing keys on their phones to access additional information or services. “It should give them the option, after they hear the message, to do something,” he says, like finding the nearest shelter, reporting a missing pet, or filing a claim for damages.

Equally important is having multichannel delivery options, including landline and cell phones, email, text message, and fax, thereby increasing the likelihood that constituents will receive notifications, even if some networks are inaccessible. If a message goes out to one modality, such as a home telephone, for example, and the system does not return a receipt, then it should be able to try a different modality, such as a cell phone or email address.

In MicroAutomation’s case, the system allows up to three telephone numbers and one email address for each person stored in the contact database. The system first tries to reach the individual via the three phone numbers; if the person is contacted, then the message is played, but if telephone attempts are unsuccessful, then a text message is sent to the email address on file.

Netpresenter’s Hoen says such systems grew out of the national Emergency Broadcast System, which used to send important messages out over the television airwaves. “You can’t rely on one medium to reach out to people anymore,” he says. “You have to reach out today using as many multimedia channels as possible.”

A Social Situation

That’s why Netpresenter’s solutions incorporate alerts via social media sites, like Twitter and Facebook. Users can also send alerts—complete with spoken warnings or siren sounds—to TV screens and video billboards, to PCs as screensavers or pop-ups, to mobile Web sites, and as RSS/XML newsfeeds. With the same touch of a button, SMS text messages can be sent to a group of phone numbers, and email alerts can be pushed out as well.

The impact of social media in this space is still debatable. Sowders has seen updates to sites like Twitter and Facebook launch community discussions and support forums where site visitors can assist one another. “It’s a very organic form of communication that we did not even anticipate when we started,” he says.

Suresh Gursahaney, CEO of MicroAutomation, on the other hand, says very few governments have embraced the social media craze. “We’ve not seen a demand for Facebook or Twitter because the government has not wrapped its arms around those yet,” he says.

Hoen says it’s not a bad idea for vendors to incorporate social media capabilities into their solutions, even if customers haven’t adopted them yet. “You need to get people on all media types so no one is left behind,” he states.

The consequences of not doing so can be far worse, Hoen adds. “At the last minute, you do not want emergency personnel calling people. You want them on the streets doing their jobs,” he says.

Populating the Database

But regardless of how messages are delivered, a system can be truly effective only if the contact information for each intended recipient is up-to-date. System vendors have made that task much easier for municipalities today as well.

Many vendors offer registration pages that allow residents to upload their own information into the contact list database. “There’s always a challenge with people moving, so there’s a benefit to having a registration page where people can go in and update their own contact information,” Burrell says. “This is very critical.”

MicroAutomation’s system can be configured to automatically populate contact databases by cold calling from phone book listings and collecting answers to a series of questions. Most information can be collected using simple touchtone responses, but for more complex information, like street and building names, speech recognition can be used as well. A recording of the conversation can be kept for those responses where the speech recognition engine was not able to capture what was said.

And it goes a long way when there are no per-message pricing plans that might cause users to think twice before sending vital information.

Blackboard Connect, for example, charges an annual fee based on the number of recipients. Five9’s fees are based on per-minute pricing. Netpresenter charges a flat licensing fee.

“In an emergency, you shouldn’t have to worry about how much it will cost,” Blackboard Connect’s Sowders says.

When the Storm Has Passed

Beyond urgent communications during hurricanes, many municipalities use outbound technologies to support a variety of proactive communications, from road closures and important town events to utility issues, pet registration reminders, and snowstorm advisories and school closings. The systems are also being widely used for AMBER Alerts and to warn residents to be on the lookout for escaped convicts or suspects being hunted by the police. Still other cities are using them to track parolees and those sentenced to house arrest.

In Texas alone, 150 municipalities representing some 600,000 households use the Blackboard Connect mass notification platform. Statewide, local officials have leveraged Blackboard Connect to quickly notify residents and provide critical direction in a number of urgent situations. 

In December, for example, when an explosion rocked a chemical plant near the city of Seabrook, nearby communities in Galveston, Kemah, La Porte, and League City sent more than 30,000 voice, email, and text messages to residents and businesses urging them to seek shelter immediately.

The technology also proved useful by school districts and municipalities during the swine flu outbreak. In California, for example, Dr. Mark Horton, director of the Department of Public Health, used Blackboard Connect’s technology to send prerecorded messages to school communities throughout the state, relaying important tips to prevent infection and the spread of the virus, as well as information about vaccination programs. 

Blackboard Connect estimates that its servers sent an estimated 21.7 million H1N1-related messages nationwide via telephone, email, and text message between November 2009 and mid-April.

Cities also have used Blackboard Connect to relay warnings about unpaid parking tickets. “They have found these to be great sources of revenue,” Sowders says.

Five9’s solutions see a lot of use by government child welfare and youth services agencies to contact deadbeat dads who are behind on their alimony and child support payments.

In La Porte, city administrators have used the Blackboard Connect system for everything from informing citizens about parades and government-sponsored events to contacting people who have missed a court date.

Whether it’s an impending storm, potential flu outbreak, wildfires, or a missing child,  mass-message technology can quickly deliver messages to keep communities informed, aware, and involved. Burrell says the benefit of such systems is simple: “You can have one person reach many in a matter of minutes versus having to mobilize first responders to go door-to-door, and then you have no way of knowing if the person heard the message or not. With [a mass-message system], you’re not putting personnel in harm’s way to make others aware of the impending danger. It’s much more efficient, with the highest probability of the message being delivered.”

“It’s just a good tool that we can use to keep our citizens informed,” Suggs adds. “It’s a good fit for us. We can use it for just about anything.”

As for the current hurricane season, which national weather experts predicted to be especially active, Suggs is confident in his Blackboard Connect system. “It’s just so very easy to work with,” he says. 

Be Prepared: Re-evaluate Continuity and Disaster Recovery Plans

MIR3, a provider of real-time notification and response technology, is urging employers to review their current business continuity and disaster recovery (BC/DR) plans to keep employees safe and operations running should a hurricane or tropical storm hit. 

To reduce the impact of natural disasters in the workplace, MIR3 executives are currently offering enterprises the following tips to follow when examining their BC/DR plans:

  • Understand BC/DR needs—In the wake of an emergency, it becomes imperative for companies to maintain clear and effective channels of communication to quickly assess damages and coordinate recovery efforts. Because essential business operations can be affected by any stage of interruption, companies must realize the importance of investing in important message delivery systems in bringing two-way, essential communication to employees and first responders.
  • Choose notification systems that offer a range of choices—When selecting a notification system, research its capabilities and consider systems that allow two-way communication over a variety of channels, including landline, fax, mobile, SMS, BlackBerry PIN-to-PIN, and email. These advanced features become very useful in the delivery of important and urgent information.
  • Ensure systems are up to date—Companies should regularly check their recipient lists to ensure all contact information is up to date so when a disaster occurs, BC/DR planners are confident that notifications are being delivered to the right person on the correct device.
  • Create escalation plans—Crisis situations demand immediate response from key decision-makers across the organization. Today’s most intelligent notification systems include integrated mechanisms that support a call escalation process. For example, if the first decision-maker contacted does not immediately respond, the notification software automatically escalates calls, texts, or email to the next appropriate executive until a response is finally achieved. Once an executive responds, an automated notification is sent out again to all decision-makers that verifies a response and appropriate action were made to address the situation at hand.
  • Train personnel and test systems—When creating BC/DR plans, it is essential to properly train personnel on how to use intelligent notification systems so they can send and monitor the entire alert process. Also, be sure to test alert systems during normal business hours and address any glitches to be certain notification deliveries are successful when needed. At least two system tests per year is a recommended industry standard.
  • Incent all employees to sign up for notifications—When a notification system is installed, it is critical that all user contact information is saved within the system’s files so staff can be alerted immediately during an urgent situation. Various incentive methods could be used—such as drawings, prizes, and awards—to persuade all required personnel to register. This ensures the accurate delivery of important messages at the right time, to the right person, on the right device. 
  • Establish reactive steps to follow after the disaster—When proactive measures fail, BC/DR management programs must specify reactive procedures to enable organizations to return to normal operations as quickly as possible. Such programs will also help them better prepare for future crises.

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