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Unified communications adds to mass notification system

Unified communications (UC) adds a whole new level to the abilities of mass notification systems -- dramatically improving the quality of life for one community and easing the fears of parents of university students.

When Michael Falkow, IT and communications director for the City of Inglewood, California, was approached by a district assemblyman with the idea of implementing a city-wide mass notification system, he jumped at the idea of improving communications between the city's departments and its citizens.

As technology continues to advance and communications become more reliable and instantaneous, people have come to view that level of communications as an inalienable right; meaning that when large-scale natural disasters and emergencies occur, most people expect to be able to reach their loved ones immediately and continuously.

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Unfortunately, that is not always the case -- often as a result of voice networks that aren't designed to handle that high level of simultaneous traffic or disaster-inflicted damage to the network.

For Falkow, who is professionally responsible for a community which lies within two miles of the Los Angeles International Airport and sits on the Newport-Inglewood fault (the second most active after the San Andreas), preparing for potential disasters -- both natural and man-made -- is just another part of the job. Asked to determine whether a mass notification system would be a wise investment for the community, Falkow took a look at 3n and National Notification Network, as well as other mass notification system companies. And as in any business, while Falkow has to consider how his top executive is going to respond to the dollar amount, he also has to report to the citizens of Inglewood -- 69,000 households paying taxes to support such projects.

Falkow had already worked closely with the Inglewood Police Department and other emergency services. He said he saw there was a need for merged communications between city government and services. He had been considering a reverse-911 system, he said, so extending his search another step to look at a more detailed system that allowed for a greater range of features did not require much more work.

After comparing the various options available, Falkow decided on 3n's solution and presented it to the City Council. In 2006, they unanimously approved the purchase of the 3n solution.

3n had developed its solution in response to the experience of one of the founders on September 11, 2001. With a child at college in New York City and unable to establish contact during the events of the day, he was determined to find a solution so that others would not have to feel the same agony.

As 3n developed its solution, Mark Ladin, vice president of product marketing, found himself in a similar situation -- his parents, who reside in Houston, were faced with limited communications abilities as Hurricane Rita swept in from the Gulf of Mexico. The test proved successful -- Ladin's parents were able to receive messages through the 3n system and could return messages by Internet.

Confirming that various forms of communications, including SMS and instant messaging, worked successfully on the 3n system, the company was able to begin approaching numerous organizations about the benefits its solution could offer. For Virginia Tech, this solution offered more of what they had already begun to implement. Prior to the tragedy on April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech had been exploring and was in the early stages of implementing a mass notification system that was designed to further develop its communications network.

"We wanted to expand on our current and existing capabilities," said Mark Owczarski, Virginia Tech's director of news and information. "With a highly mobile population, we needed to match that mobility with our campus communications."

With a number of different systems in place, VT wanted a solution that could handle all the up-to-the-minute communications broadcasts that students at VT had come to expect. Following April 16th, VT looked at its new system and stepped up the implementation to ensure that students and faculty could include the phone numbers of parents and spouses as contact numbers for the system -- designed to allow the system to keep parents informed of the same information that their children would receive. Students and faculty can also now pick whether they want the service to contact them first by cell phone, instant message, SMS or email -- allowing VT to truly mobilize its alert system.

"It's an illusion to think that you can inform everyone instantaneously," Owczarski noted, "so your goal becomes to reach as many people as soon as possible."

Taking his cue from both Ladin and Virginia Tech, Falkow said he realized the potential emergencies the City of Inglewood could someday face, further highlighting the need for a mass notification system.

Beyond the uses for emergencies and disaster notification and communications, Falkow said the 3n system could be used as a notification system to quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively inform citizens of city repairs, especially ones that could affect water service or traffic conditions. Municipal services such as the police or fire departments could also utilize the system to inform individuals of situations that fall under their jurisdictions -- meaning that the right people for specific incidents could be effectively reached and then be in the right place in a time-efficient manner.

Falkow said the city has improved its average contact time from 45 minutes to three minutes when reaching city employees. When interacting with the public, he said, the city can easily set the Web-based 3n software to call residents and inform them of upcoming or emergency service works that happen in their neighborhood. As with Virginia Tech, city employees can decide how they wish to be contacted in order of preferences -- including a text message if they are in the middle of a meeting.

Residents who are unlisted or on other types of privacy listings would be contacted only in an emergency. A pre-recorded message with the City of Inglewood leaves a call-back number that citizens who have questions can dial for either more information or to talk live with a city employee. With this system, the city can also track which and how many citizens have been informed of situations.

"Once the system's been decided on, and to make the investment worthwhile, you need to invest people into the project," Falkow said. "Each department should have a representative, with one responsible for the entire system."

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