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Using mass notification to respond to a terrorist incident

The tragic events in Paris last year represented a step change in the way that civilians were targeted at their most vulnerable, not only because of the primary mode of assault, but also in the way that the media responded. There has been a lot of analysis and discussion around this but for now, I would like to focus on the way that we responded to the incident using both the media and also social media.

This infamous video, marked a step change of how information is reported during an incident. The video represented one of the first times that live footage was instantly streamed of an attack in a Western country. The images from this video would never have been shown by any reputable media outlet as there are very strict controls in place to prevent this. Therefore we are seeing an evolution in the way that we communicate.

This was crystallised by the Facebook safety check, the social good media response – a method whereby our friends can let us know that they are safe during an incident. This represents very well how we can as a population respond to a crisis. Twitter is also an interesting media. It is the first port of call to find out what is going on, but you have to take the information with a pinch of salt, as sometimes the information on Twitter isn’t correct. Twitter was used during the Paris attacks for both good and bad, for example, the local hospitals used it to say that they urgently needed blood.

Where does this media evolution leave us as business continuity/crisis managers?

When your senior leader asks you to ‘contact everybody in a particular area and report back to me the status of everybody’…how can a business continuity manager achieve this?  What does it mean when a CISO, or CIO asks you to do this?  Here are some key areas that you need to think about to enable you to prepare your response to a major incident:

Plan for unreliable communications
We know that during an incident, no single communication path is 100% reliable. GSM networks might be flooded, email systems can become blocked etc. So ensure you plan for this.

Plan to communicate in a global, dynamic world
Multi-modal messaging is the only way to increase delivery and response success. During a terrorist incident, networks can become overloaded, so ensure that you have several different pathways to contact your employees – email, SMS, phone.

Define an acceptable response rate
Define what an acceptable response rate is during an actual emergency, not just a test.

Manage your contact paths
Define what contact paths you will use – phone, email, SMS, and ensure the contact paths are up-to-date – not only so that you ensure you can contact people during the emergency, but also to ensure you are complying with data privacy regulations.

Ensure that your employees know how and what to respond to. If for example they get a call from a number that they do not recognise, or an email address that is unfamiliar – do they know what to do? Do they know what phone numbers, or emails are used by your organisation in an emergency?

Set up pre-defined templates
Avoid ‘making stuff up’ along the way during an incident, by having pre-defined templates of what you are going to say and to whom.

Request a response
Request a response from your employees to check that they are OK. If they don’t respond, then you can ensure that you focus all of your attention on those that really need help. The response doesn’t just have to be ‘Are you OK?’ but you can have a response that says ‘I need assistance’. This will ensure that you can report back to your command centre and manage your resources effectively.

Test your system
Demonstrate that you can execute your plan in an emergency. Some people get nervous about testing because they don’t want to upset their users. Nobody wants unwarranted phone calls or emails, but this goes back to the education part, in that you need to be able to respond for real when an incident happens, and the only way to do this is to test your system!

Report on your results
Ensure that you can your report the results, and respond to them. Check whether you met your desired response rate – if you said you wanted a 90% response rate – can you do that? What do you need to do to improve your results? For example if you got a poor response, do you need to get the leadership involved to educate people as to how important this is?

To sum up, it’s not possible to predict where, or when the next incident will be, but it is possible to be prepared to respond. Have the tools, training and procedures in place that will help your organisation, employees and yourself. Exercise your tools, procedures and people. Follow the old Scouts saying “be prepared” and you will be successful.

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