Governments should turn to professional providers of alerting systems

Government and business both have increasing compliance requirements across the board to communicate with the public and their employees in emergency or disruption situations. Now there are tools that can make that process simple and those with the responsibility need to take advantage of them.

The French government has pioneered this approach using the latest mobile app technology and have developed an app to communicate with the public in situations of extreme and immediate urgency, such as terrorist attacks. They should be given credit for doing so. The app was created after last year’s terrorist attacks in Paris and launched in time for the Euro 2016 football tournament, held in France, where it was not used.

But along with the praise has now come criticism following the reported failure of the emergency notification app, SAIP, to send out an alert to users in the Nice area until well after the recent terrorist attack there had finished. The app is an EMNS product, designed to provide rapid mass notification to users of an impending or ongoing terrorist attack or other emergency event. The Nice truck attack is exactly the kind of scenario that it was supposedly designed for, yet it seems to have failed in the one task for which it was created. The alert did actually go out, but reportedly not until two hours after the attack had finished.

This event offers an instructive warning to providers of EMNS. The scenario we are now facing, with organised groups of terrorists using firearms, explosives and even vehicles to wreak mayhem on civilian populations, is one we have not encountered before. The failure of the SAIP app in Nice was disturbing, but the event itself lasted only a few minutes and probably fell into the category of events where the threat to life was immediate and unstoppable.

Even if the app had launched an alert within five minutes of the threat becoming apparent, it would already have been too late to effectively warn potential victims. This is not to say that such a warning would have been very useful in the immediate aftermath, to inform the crowds, counter rumours and direct them away from the scene or towards RVPs.

Those of us in the EMNS industry must be careful what we claim. No business or even government can offer absolute guarantees in such a situation. What we can do is to offer to improve the odds of survival, allow two-way communications with those in the vicinity of the incident and reduce the impact of the aftermath by calming the situation and directing survivors.

Multiple communications channels, that allow SMS and push notifications as well as phone calls, will improve the odds in the event that the mobile network is temporarily overwhelmed. Cloud-hosted services will help by avoiding the danger that comes from physical servers located close to the incident itself. Also, of vital importance is to test your communications regularly to ensure that when they are needed for real any bugs have already been identified and eliminated.

Crises Control offers all of these functions, as do other providers. Governments and other public sector organisations need to consider turning to such professional and experienced providers rather than simply trying to create new products for themselves. Such products are tried and tested and less likely to fail. There can be no guarantees, but you have a duty of care to your employees to take what steps you can to improve the odds should something terrible happen.

Rickie Sehgal