Emergency Hotline and Mass Notification Tools

This post frames the value of two types of communication tools that can be of great benefit to you and your organization – incoming and outgoing communication tools. These are two of my passions and specialties.

In the technology posts on UltimateBusinessContinuity.com we will discuss in detail how to select and implement these tools.

Tip – To provide your employees with the most value, provide them with both a way to call in for crisis information and a way for them to receive information on their personal and work devices. To accomplish this I recommend implementing BOTH an emergency hotline (incoming) and a mass notification system (outgoing).

Tip – To eliminate the possibility of providing employees with mixed/contradictory messages during a crisis, you MUST develop a process so your emergency hotline message is aligned with your outgoing mass notification system message.

How an Emergency Hotline (incoming) complements a Mass Notification System (outgoing):

Emergency Hotline:

An emergency hotline can be a phone or bulletin board system. The hotline can use voice recordings or textual messages on web pages (bulletin board feature). It can optionally allow employees to speak with operators or post responses, pictures, video… during a disruptive event. The emergency hotline must be able to support a large volume of simultaneous callers, so do not use a line that will only support 10-15 employees if you have 3,000 people in your company. Always allow room for growth. If you think you will need to accommodate 50 simultaneous callers – then implement capacity for 100+.

Mass Notification System:

A mass notification system enables you to send large numbers of people a consistent interactive message using multiple modes of communication in seconds or minutes. For example, during hurricane Sandy I sent out 38,000 voice calls, emails, text messages and push notifications all in less than five minutes. Try that with a manual call tree! Mass notification systems empower you to send consistent messages and get important responses from recipients.

Tip – Some mass notification systems I recommend have the capability to also act as your emergency hotline.

Why my recommended solution consists of both an Emergency Hotline + Mass Notification System:

I believe you need both types of systems. During an ice storm, you may use your outgoing mass notification system to blast a message to two groups of employees, alerting one group that there will be a one hour delayed opening for location ‘abc’ and the other group that location ‘def’ will be closed for the day. As part of the messages you would request the recipients to, ‘continue to check the emergency hotline – 800-XXX-XXXX for important updates before leaving for the office ‘. This provides both push and pull benefits for the people that require critical information.

The benefit of employees calling into the emergency hotline becomes important if they are not able to be reached in a remote area with your outgoing mass notification system (Tip – a sat phone would eliminate that vulnerability). The ability to pull information from the emergency hotline allows employees to call in from any phone and receive critical information. For example, if an employee’s mobile device is out of power or they are in a location with poor cellular reception or they simply do not have their phone handy (I know not having your mobile phone in your pocket nowadays sounds ludicrous, but it could theoretically happen). In those instances, they will still have the option to access a message on the emergency hotline from any landline or a friend’s mobile device.

Tip – Many organizations brand outgoing messages with the emergency hotline number as the caller ID. In my experience, including an important number that employees are familiar with will significantly increase the number of people that will answer the call. When people receive a call from a strange number they are not familiar with they often think it is an annoying telemarketing sales call and they will ignore the call.

I have used emergency hotlines and mass notification tools to keep employees well informed during disruptive events including:

Weather events:

  • Hurricanes
  • Ice and Snow Storms
  • Blizzards
  • Earthquakes
  • Floods
  • Tornadoes

Man-made events:

  • Power outages
  • Terrorism

The following are some tips I have learned through the years. Also, in other posts on UltimateBusinessContinuity.com I have a extensive list of ‘according to Marty’ mass notification best practices. In addition, in the technology category there is a post dedicated to mass notification selection criteria and suggested vendor questions.

Tip – A top-down formalized emergency response protocol should be used to create consistent messages. This will eliminate the possibility of unauthorized, inappropriate and possibly conflicting messages being placed on the incoming emergency hotline or being blasted out to employees with the outgoing mass notification system. I have heard of this happening. It gets messy, so be careful. Customize templates where possible to reduce errors.

The Incident Command Team, including the Incident Commander and management representing HR, Legal, Safety, Security, Communications, Operations, Business Resilience / Continuity, Sales and additional processes in your organization, could be the authoritative team that develops the appropriate messages to be delivered to employees. I have enjoyed success when HR and Corporate Communications take the lead on the proper wording.

After the message is developed, it is recorded and posted to the emergency hotline and launched with the outgoing mass notification system by an employee trained in the administration of the systems. Often, this person is an HR or Corporate Communications manager to insure a consistent message is communicated through all channels.

Tip –  If you contract with an emergency hotline vendor consider front-ending their number with one. Callers will call your number and it will redirect (pass through) to the vendor end-point number.  That way if you ever need to change vendors you simply point your toll-free hotline phone number to a different end-point.

Tip – Multiple emergency hotlines can create confusion:

If you have many locations multiple emergency hotlines can create confusion. For example, imagine if you work in New York and travel to your location in Nebraska or Hawaii (hopefully). What if there was a crisis event and you needed crisis updates in the state you are visiting. Would you know their emergency hotline phone number? What if there was an ice storm and the local management team decided to delay the opening due to extremely dangerous road conditions? Wouldn’t you want to know that rather than driving to the office in dangerous conditions, assuming unnecessary risk and discovering the location is not even open? Yikes! I know I would be pissed off.

To exasperate the situation, as organizations grow and expand to new locales emergency hotlines have a way of multiplying like bunny rabbits which leads to significant confusion, complexity and cost. What an unnecessary mess.

Tip – The above issue is for emergency hotline contact. Good mass notification systems (outgoing) have interesting options for automatically detecting through geo-fencing where you are currently located and can dynamically include you on outgoing notifications for the site you are visiting. More on that when we deep-dive mass notification system selection criteria in other posts on UltimateBusinessContinuity.com.

Tip – Consider this solution – One National Emergency Hotline

In my experience, a single national emergency hotline may be a better solution than multiple local emergency hotlines.

I have experienced both scenarios; organizations that used multiple emergency hotlines with inconsistent results and Fortune 100 companies with 75,000+ employees that very successfully used one national emergency hotline during local and regional events.

Advantages of one national emergency hotline include:

  • Simplicity – only one number for employees to remember wherever they are will greatly increase their ability to access the system – especially if the number is an easy to remember acronym such as 800-CRI-SIS1.
  • Using one vendor simplifies billing and reduces costs. Most of the time the emergency hotline will not be in use and paying multiple vendors is a waste of money which is compounded as you add new local numbers.
  • Updating one national emergency hotline by a central 24x7x365 team is much simpler, less stressful and error prone than having to maintain and remember how to update multiple local emergency hotlines by administrators who rarely use the system.

Sample Emergency Hotline and Mass Notification Message Tips:

When posting a message to the emergency hotline or launching a notification it is very important to indicate the precise location that is impacted. The message should inform employees of the current status and any call to action. For example:

‘Due to the ice storm the 123 Main Street, New York, New York location is scheduled to open at 10 am EST on Monday January 8, 2018. Please continue to check the emergency hotline for updates before travelling.’

Tip – If there are many locations simultaneously impacted and opening at the same time you could use:

‘Due to the north-east ice storm the following locations will open at 10 am Monday January 8, 2018: 12 Main Street, New York, New York, 456 South Avenue, Clifton, New Jersey and 789 Beacon Road, Hartford, Connecticut. Please continue to check the emergency hotline for updates before travelling.’

Tip – If there are many offices simultaneously impacted and opening at various times you could use:

‘Due to the northeast ice storm the following locations will have a delayed opening on Monday January 8, 2018. The 12 Main Street, New York, New York location will open at 10 am. The 456 South Avenue, Clifton, New Jersey location will open at 11 am. Please continue to check the emergency hotline for updates before travelling.’

Tip – On days when there are no crisis messages the emergency hotline should have a message to the effect:

‘There are no emergency messages for Thursday February 1, 2018.’

Tip – Emergency Hotline Awareness:

Here are a few tips to help improve emergency hotline awareness. Customize for your organization:

  • Each employee should have the emergency hotline phone number on the back of their employee ID badge. Labels can be affixed to the back of employee ID badges rather than printing new badges.
  • Emergency hotline labels should be placed on desk phones.
  • Wall posters should remind employees of the importance of the emergency hotline.
  • Emergency contact wallet cards should be made available to employees. Critical contact numbers including the emergency hotline will then be readily accessible to them wherever they are. This is especially important if you do not have an emergency hotline with an easy to remember acronym.
  • Employees should be encouraged to add the emergency hotline as a contact on their mobile phones.
  • The emergency hotline should be publicized in national and local corporate newsletters.
  • The employee section of the corporate website should include the emergency hotline phone number(s) and reminders that it is our ‘life-line’ during a crisis event.