Crisis Communication: Implementing a Mass Notification System in Your Courthouse

In 2014 the Orange County Superior Court developed a request for proposal to identify a vendor to provide mass notification services. In late 2015 the court implemented a fully functioning mass notification system, called Court Alert. The court has eight locations and hears criminal, traffic, civil, probate, juvenile, family-law, and mental-health cases. The population of the county is more than three million residents, larger than 21 states. The court is one of the largest state trial courts in the country. There are currently 144 judicial positions authorized—124 judges and 20 commissioners.

Critical incidents, whether manmade or natural disasters, can create a significant impact on a single courthouse or an entire court system. A key aspect to a courthouse being prepared to respond in emergencies is having a multimodal communication tool to alert the courthouse community. During an emergency, judges and court staff are flooded with information from their colleagues, social media, and traditional media outlets. The ability to receive and disseminate accurate and reliable information is critical in times of crisis. Mass notification systems provide this capability by allowing court staff to send an emergency alert to the courthouse community through a variety of communication channels.

The History of Mass Notification Systems

In early American history, emergency notification came through simple means. This included the ringing of church bells or even messengers (think Paul Revere) who delivered important communications on horseback. During World War II, civil-defense programs around the country began to rely on sirens to alert citizens of impending danger or attack (see “A Brief History of Mass Notification,” blog, Onsolve website). Today’s automated notification got its start with the one-way numeric pagers that were primarily used by medical staff for on-call resources. When two-way pagers gained traction, they opened the opportunity for closed-loop communication, and with that came continued growth in the pager market. The early 1990s saw the introduction of email for the masses, although at first it was available only with subscription services and only at dial-up speeds. A few may remember the distinct noises and tones their modem made while attempting to connect through AOL. By the year 2000, costs and capacities were at a point that sending an urgent message through thousands of simultaneous phone calls became both practical and cost-effective. Email had also advanced, making it a practical way to reach many people quickly.

In today’s modern society, communication can often move at the speed of light or, more accurately, the speed of a “tweet.” Smart phones are a common item for all persons regardless of socioeconomic status. When an incident occurs, one is more likely to see information about it through a Facebook or Twitter feed rather than mainstream media such as radio or television news. Modern communication tools, such as smart phones, digital displays, GPS, and text-to-speech technology, are changing the way people are notified about emergencies. These modern devices have the advantage of providing detailed messages; so, instead of merely notifying people about an emergency, it is now possible to provide specific instructions on what to do to mitigate the effects of the emergency. Furthermore, those instructions might even be customized for an individual’s specific and unique circumstances. For example, a single alert can be sent en masse to smart phones equipped with geolocation capabilities that display a map of safe locations during an emergency.

How Do Mass Notification Systems Work?

Modern mass notification systems use a platform that sends messages to inform employees or the public of an emergency. These systems are often Web-based and can improve the safety and security of an organization by providing one-way or two-way alerts and real-time information during a critical incident. Mass notification systems typically have a database, which contains names, phone numbers, and email addresses of employees within an organization. These systems typically have a robust communication infrastructure and bandwidth to deliver emergency emails, texts, or phone calls to thousands of users in a very short period of time. Delivery of emergency messages can be done audibly, visually, or both. Most systems rely on human interaction to send a message; however, technology does allow for automatic sensors to send a message when a certain threshold, such as smoke or gas detection, is discovered. Many organizations use mass notification systems as a key communication component of their emergency action plan to communicate to employees, tenants, and other stakeholders in the event of workplace accidents, utility outages (power, water, technological), and natural disasters (hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes). However, the system can also be used for nonemergency events, such as availability of open shifts and human-resource campaigns (open enrollment, feedback, surveys).

Procuring a Mass Notification System—What to Look For

One of the first questions a court manager should ask when contemplating a mass notification system is, “Why are we really buying the system?” Is this going to be strictly for emergency notification purposes, or do we plan on using it for normal day-to-day business functions as well? In 2015 the Orange County Superior Court implemented a mass notification system called Court Alert. Although adaptable enough to be used for IT-related emergencies, the court initially decided to use its system strictly for security- and facility-related emergency purposes.

Courts should consider developing a cross-functional evaluation committee to identify vendors. Suggested committee members include a representative from human resources or legal counsel, IT, facilities department, and your security provider. The committee members will determine the criteria used to evaluate potential vendors. Some important questions for vendors are:

  1. How do you store and maintain the security of personal data?
  2. Have you had cyber breaches within your system?
  3. What safeguards are used to ensure personal data, particularly for judicial officers, is kept confidential?
  4. Will training be provided to staff who will use the system to send alerts, and will training or education be provided to the court community who will receive the alerts?

When implementing a mass notification system, courts will need to determine who they want to alert. Will the system be for employees and judicial officers, or will it also include external justice partners, such as public-defender offices, prosecuting-attorney offices, or probation offices? This question is important for two main reasons. First, the cost of a system is often based on the total number of users. Second, if the court does not currently store staff information for external justice partners in its database, a process for uploading or accessing that personal information must be established.

When implementing a mass notification system, courts should consider how they want to host the system. Some may host the system in the cloud, via a Web-based system, or on a system within the courthouse. Since the implementation of Court Alert in the Orange County Superior Court, the alert system has been expanded to be used for IT-related emergencies. In this instance, it has been beneficial to have a mass notification system that is not hosted or tied into the court’s existing infrastructure.

Junk in Junk out—The Importance of Having Good Data

To improve the quality of personnel data in Orange County, the court created a portal page using Microsoft Dynamics where employees and judicial officers can enter and update their information. When evaluating vendors, courts should inquire how internal data will be uploaded to the system and how often it will be updated to keep information current.

Courts considering implementing a mass notification system need to examine the various contact pathways to reach people in an emergency. Whether the pathway is a cell-phone number, work-phone number, personal email, or work email, if the data are inaccurate, the court will have a difficult time reaching people in an emergency. The more contact pathways you have for an individual, the greater the chance that person will receive the emergency alert during a critical incident. Redundancy is key.

Courts should choose appropriate delivery methods for the particular situation. If an emergency is happening during normal business hours, there is probably no need to call an employee’s home phone. On the flipside, if an emergency occurs after hours, using the home number would be appropriate. For routine power outages, IT-related outages, and other non-life-threatening situations, a simple text message or email may be most appropriate.

The court should also consider how individuals will be targeted during an emergency. Will the court target individuals by job classification, by functional department, or by physical location in the building? Capturing this information in the database is important if the court plans to filter information during an emergency to certain groups.

In Orange County, the court typically targets all employees and judicial officers within a specific courthouse. However, by including certain attributes such as job category, supervisory responsibilities, department, and floor in the database, they can target alerts to managers working on a specific floor and in a specific department if they choose.

Educating Your Court Community and Defining Trigger Points When the Mass Notification System Will Be Used

Once a court decides to purchase a system, it is very important to think about how the system will be marketed to the court community. Most people despise spam or robocalls. Educating your court community about the purpose of the system is critical to ensure its success. In Orange County, the court notified the court community that the system would only be used in emergencies and that it would not be used for day-to-day nonemergency messages or to give everyone a heads up of breaking news. The court’s message was that the system was designed to alert participants of emergencies that have impacted, or have the potential to impact, their courthouses.

The Orange County Superior Court provided the numbers from which alerts would be sent. In doing so, the court community is now aware that a message from a specific number is indeed a real Court Alert notification.

The Importance of Collaboration

Having a system is great; however, the key to successful implementation is tied to planning how a system will be used during an actual emergency. A comprehensive, critical-incident communications plan, or a standard operating procedure for the system, is paramount. The plan should include the events for which the system will be used, identify the system operators who will send alerts, and provide a backup plan. The Orange County Superior Court found it helpful to develop templates within the system for various emergency scenarios. For example, when a false fire alarm was triggered, a Court Alert operator did not need to think about how to word a message that the alarm was false. The message was already prewritten. These templates should reflect the emergencies each individual courthouse may encounter, which could include alarm activations, emergency evacuations, active shooters, demonstrations or protests outside the courthouse, and utility outages. Although templates are very beneficial, it is important to empower the system operators on how to craft specific and unique messages where a prerecorded message may not be appropriate. The court may also wish to review emergency templates with other law-enforcement agencies or emergency services to ensure they are compatible.

Mass Notification Systems—A Tool in Your Communication Toolbox

It is important to remember that mass notification systems are not a silver bullet that will solve all communication issues at the courthouse. The system, although a very powerful one, is simply another tool in your court’s communication toolbox. A courthouse communication plan is critical and should identify all the available types of communication that can be used in an emergency. There may be other ways to provide emergency alerts, such as public-address systems, emergency radios, various forms of electronic signage, and phone/video conferencing. A communication plan should also identify all entities that need to be notified in an emergency. Developing a plan to communicate with justice partners, members of the public, jurors, and the media is an important feature of a communication plan.

About the Author

Justin Mammen is the emergency response and security services manager for the Orange County Superior Court.