The Evolution of Mass Notification
By FRANK MAHDAVI
Part 1: Events that Heralded the Need
The Cold War
Electronic mass notification gained prominence in 1963 when
the U.S. government implemented the Emergency Broadcast
System (EBS) to quickly warn the entire population of any
emergency. In that era, school children routinely participated in
nuclear bomb safety drills, and many of us recall a voice declaring over the television or radio, “This is a test of the Emergency
Broadcast System. For the next 60 seconds … this is only a test,”
followed by a loud, one-minute tone.
That system was replaced in 1997 by the Emergency Alert
System (EAS), designed to enable the President of the United
States to speak to the entire country within minutes. The EAS
also relies on TV and radio, but includes analog, digital, terrestrial, and satellite broadcast. EAS is effective for reaching a very
large geographical area, but it isn’t flexible enough to target a
specific area such as a county, city, or neighborhood.
Localized catastrophes during the past two decades and
the adoption of many additional communication modes have
increased the need for a new class of mass notification systems that can effectively warn many people at once in a specific
affected area using the latest communication channels. For most
of the world, Sept. 11, 2001, was the wake-up call. But for the
Department of Defense, the wake-up call came a few years earlier, in the form of a truck bomb.
1996: DOD’s Wakeup Call in Saudi Arabia
On the evening of June 25, 1996, a fuel truck drove up to a U.S.
Air Force base in Saudi Arabia, parking near Khobar Towers, a
housing complex on the base. A few men got out of the truck and
escaped in a getaway car. Sentries on the roof quickly identified
the truck as a bomb, reported the threat to Central Security Control
(CSC), and started evacuating the building, knocking on doors
and calling out warnings. Meanwhile, CSC started the process of
activating the base’s “Giant Voice,” a loudspeaker system used to
issue voice or siren alerts across the entire base. Unfortunately,
the process was so awkward and complicated that Giant Voice
could not be turned on in time. The sentries could only evacuate three floors before the bomb went off, ripping through the
building with a force estimated at nearly 20,000 pounds of TNT.
While the sentries saved many lives with their efforts, 20 men
were killed and nearly 400 were injured.
In his analysis of the incident, published in July 2007,
Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen coined the phrase “mass
notification,” noting that measures such as knocking on doors
and word-of-mouth were “… not a substitute for an automated
mass notification system.” This incident was the impetus for the
Department of Defense authoring its pioneering document in 2002,
“DOD Minimum Antiterrorism Standards for Buildings,” which
defines mass notification as “… the capability to provide real-time
information and instructions to people, in a building, area, site,
or installation using intelligible voice communications including
visible signals, text, and graphics, and possibly including other
tactile or other communication methods.” The DOD realized that
the old way of doing things — manual phone trees, manual one-
way e-mail blasts, paging, and word-of-mouth — were woefully
inadequate to the task of emergency notification, and that an auto-
mated solution using a wide variety of communication modes was
needed. Soon the rest of the world would realize the same.
In every case, an automated, rapid two-way mass notification
system able to reach many people at once on multiple communication modes — such as cell phone, landline, e-mail, text message, pager, fax, TTY for the hearing impaired and BlackBerry
PIN-to-PIN — could have helped save lives and reduce confusion in the midst of these calamities.
In particular, two of these events changed the way we think
about public safety and business continuity. During the 9/11
attack on the World Trade Center, a mass notification system
would have been instrumental in guiding people to safety and
coordinating the efforts of public safety personnel before and
after the towers collapsed. It also would have helped those companies with offices in the towers to better communicate with their
employees to monitor their status, provide support, assess their
business situation, and activate recovery plans.
The Virginia Tech campus shootings, in which a lone shooter
killed 32 people and injured many more, was also a major catalyst,
serving as the clarion call to educational institutions nationwide to
immediately implement mass notification systems to keep students
safe and parents informed during critical, fast-moving situations.
Part 2: The Technological Path to Mass Notification
1980s and 1990s
In the 1980s, notification consisted of point-to-point, one-way
e-mails and pages, with e-mail only working within closed corporate networks. The early ’90s saw the introduction of e-mail for
the masses, but only with subscription services such as Prodigy,
CompuServe, and AOL, at dial-up speeds. Meanwhile, computer-