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Alert Notification and the Matrix Abyss

A competitive matrix in the notification industry is virtually useless. It provides almost no meaningful assistance to making informed decisions.

Patsy Lynch/FEMA
It's not unusual for someone to ask me to provide a matrix that compares one notification solution to the others. Just the other day, a request came from a large company, curious about how the various players stack up. In almost every case, I refuse to be sucked into the matrix abyss. Here’s why: A competitive matrix in the notification industry is virtually useless. It provides almost no meaningful assistance to making informed decisions.

Unfortunately it’s more complicated than putting together a list of vendors and noting who does what (see my analysis of alert notifications systems). These lists almost always end up with a feature and functionality inventory. You won’t find significant differences between what notification companies of the same ilk list as their features and functions.

So the question becomes: How do I decide which one is best? Instead of relying on a matrix to answer your question for you, try asking these questions:

  • Will the solution be conducive to the reality of how people communicate these days? Communications preferences differ significantly between individuals. Will the solution be able to communicate with the full spectrum of preferences?
  • What’s the long-term prognosis for the solution? Can it be flexible as technology and citizen preferences change? How will it fare when standards supported by the federal government really take hold? Does it fit within the overall national game plan? Is the vendor really paying attention to what’s happening on this front?
  • How does the solution fit with my existing public-warning approaches? Most local agencies have some type of public-warning solution in place. It’s hard to throw out the old to make room for the new. So you must determine what can be salvaged from your old solution and how it can blend with the new.
  • Does the solution play well with others? Can it be interfaced to other notification solutions? What about non-notification solutions such as incident management systems and other tools found in the emergency operations center? Would it support an effort to create an “easy button” to help streamline notification procedures in an emergency?
  • Can the solution handle my load? If the provider is promising to notify large quantities in a significant and widespread event, has it really done it? Whether the solution is making phone calls, delivering text messages or sounding sirens, there are limits to bandwidth availability. Users who don’t understand this and make their vendors prove capacity but don’t prepare for limitations will find themselves short when a major event occurs.
  • How does the solution really fit the dynamics of my situation? There are many similarities to the emergency environments we work in. However, ignoring nuances can lead to less-than-success.
  • What kind of customer-support record does the vendor have? This is serious business, no time for vendors who don’t support and listen to their customers.
And I could go on. Unfortunately this isn’t easy stuff. There are so many vendors in the notifications, alerts and warnings market making so many claims that it’s difficult to get a grip on where to turn. There’s no easy answer, and relying on a feature and functionality matrix won’t help.
[Photo courtesy of Patsy Lynch/FEMA.]

Rick Wimberly is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.