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Unified critical communications reinforce employee safety

Imagine this: A shooter has entered one of your offices. Employees' lives are in danger. How do you communicate quickly with the right people to facilitate employee safety?

Unfortunately, this scenario has become more frequent. Critical events -- such as office shootings, terrorist attacks or severe weather -- call for critical communications. A certain market of providers, those specializing in critical communications, has emerged to help companies manage their communication needs in the event of a major incident.

Many of these providers unify communications -- such as voice, video and messaging -- across multiple endpoints. Enterprises should consider critical communications tools to enhance employee safety and keep their businesses running, according to industry experts.

In the U.S., employers are legally obligated to keep employees safe under the duty-of-care principle, which says businesses should provide reasonable safety for their workers. Critical communication services are important for enterprises because, "during a crisis, the first thing you need to do is manage your people," said Roberta Witty, a Gartner analyst.

Melding communications across modalities

Some notable vendors in the unified critical communications space, also known as emergency mass notification services, include AtHoc, Emergency Communications Network, Everbridge, Global AlertLink, Send Word Now and xMatters. 

These enterprise-class services include core crisis communication tools -- such as email, voicemail and text messaging -- as well as geographically dispersed data centers and multiple-language messaging capabilities, Witty said. Some vendors also integrate with several endpoints, such as mobile devices, digital signage, desktop alerting and public alert systems in buildings.

AtHoc and Everbridge, in particular, are deemed market leaders and compete head to head, Witty said. Both vendors provide personal-safety features, such as tracking employees via mobile apps and integrations into building-access systems, so companies can determine who's in each building.

For enterprises, Witty said, the key tenets of a critical communications strategy are centered on knowing where your employees are and reaching them in different ways via multiple endpoints. For some employees, a desktop alert might be the best way to reach them; others might need a mobile alert or phone call. Enterprises also need to ensure sufficient bandwidth if a crisis occurs.

Some industries are bound by regulations to have a crisis communications system in place. Higher-education institutions, for example, must provide certain student safety measures, a step that was taken in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.

"The issue is being able to reach your people when you need to reach them," Witty said. "You need a consistent, common approach to alerting people, and that's where these tools come into the picture."

Tracking the stages of crisis communications

Everbridge, based in Burlington, Mass., uses a multistep approach to dissect emergencies, which includes recognizing the problem, locating and contacting affected employees, mobilizing responders, and analyzing how the process transpired. Everbridge's software-as-a-service product detects emergencies via different feeds, such as social media, travel-risk feeds or employees reporting problems, according to Everbridge CTO Imad Mouline.

The platform can locate employees via various means, including the Everbridge mobile app, building-access keycards, corporate Wi-Fi connections and static locations, such as homes, which are logged in human resource profiles. Employees are contacted in several ways, including phone calls, emails or mobile alerts.

"Even if I'm contacting a million people, I can contact each person according to his or her preferences, such as SMS first, then a push notification, then a phone call," Mouline said. "We're not going to tell you the best way is phone or SMS or a mobile application. You need all of those to increase the chances of delivering a message and getting a response back."

In a crisis, such as a shooter in a building, the Everbridge system can lock employees' desktop computers to urge them to stop working and heed the emergency. In many crises, end users are required to reply to alerts. Employees' expected locations can also be tracked via travel itineraries to alert them, for instance, of an emerging protest, riot or weather event.

Personnel safety is paramount

In the Everbridge system, sending a mass notification is largely automated with drop-down menus, preloaded messages and standard operating procedures. Company responders or resolvers are also notified and can open a conference bridge to collaborate via voice, messaging, image sharing and video chat, Mouline said.

Everbridge uses WebRTC for the live video component and voice over IP through Session Initiation Protocol that's distributed worldwide via multiple providers. Since it's a global operation, Everbridge contends with several country-by-country regulations, such as messaging limits. But, for every country, the vendor builds in redundancy by using at least two different paths each for messaging and telecom.

Everbridge, which went public in September 2016, has more than 3,000 enterprise customers, Mouline said. According to market research firm Frost & Sullivan, the unified critical communications market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 25.5% from 2014 to $14.8 billion in 2020.

"I don't see any decline in customer interest," Gartner's Witty said about the market's growth. "It's not necessarily a tough sell because you're talking about personnel safety. Companies understand they wouldn't be in business without their personnel."

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