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Phone Notification Systems

Steve Marzolf

Virginia E-911 Coordinator



Overview of Phone Notification Systems


The need has never been greater in this post-September 11th and post-Hurricane Katrina world to provide information to our citizens.  Whether an evacuation order, information about an attack or a location to get assistance, being able to get the correct information out can be essential to saving lives and protecting property.  One method for disseminating this information is to utilize a telephone notification system. 


Simply stated, a telephone notification system will place calls to telephone numbers contained in a database and will play a recorded message.  The message may be a prerecorded or “canned” message or can be recorded specifically for that alert.  Some systems require the person sending the message to actually record their own voice, while others will use a synthesized voice.  For citizen alerting, most often the database used for the telephone numbers is the 9-1-1 database.  This database contains not only published telephone numbers but also non-published or unlisted telephone numbers.  While this is probably the most accurate and complete telephone listing, it only includes telephones on traditional telephone service and does not include wireless, VoIP or other newer technologies.


An alternative to using the 9-1-1 database (or sometimes used as a supplement) is allowing people to provide their own contact information.  Allowing people to “subscribe” to the alerting system has the advantage of allowing them to define how they would like to be alerted, but adds a significant concern about the continued reliability of the data.  The telephone companies provide regular updates to the 9-1-1 database, but a user may forget to update or change their contact information after they have initially signed up for the service.  Additionally, a subscription service cannot be used as the sole database for alerting since not everyone will have the capability to sign up and in an emergency, notification needs to be made regardless of whether the person has signed up.


Most notification systems have an interface that will allow the user to send an alert based on any criteria in the database.  This includes the ability to geographically select an area on a map and send an alert to all telephone numbers within that area based on their address.  This allows notifications to be sent to only the area affected by a situation.  This is especially important in large areas since the speed of alerting is determined by the number of telephone lines available to make the calls.  Recognizing that each telephone call takes time, it is important that the alert messages are targeted to those who need them the most.


The purchase of telephone notification systems are often justified based on their utility in an emergency situation.  Evacuation orders due to flooding, chemical leaks, etc. are often the most common uses.  However, a growing number of communities are also using the systems to send more routine (but yet important) messages.  Some communities will send out alerts to neighborhood watch groups or businesses about criminal activity to be on the watch for while others may send out information on low income, heating assistance programs for the coming winter.


Accessibility of Phone Notification Systems


Most of the major telephone notification systems are now compatible with TDD/TTY devices.  The system includes a TDD/TTY detector on each telephone line so that if a Baudot or ASCII answer tone is received, the message can be sent in the appropriate format.  For systems where the person sending the message actually records the message to be sent, they must also type the message into the system so that it can be sent properly to non-voice users.  A Baudot or ASCII signal must be received by the detector and the message must have been typed in the system for the TDD/TTY message to be sent.


Many of the system do have the capability of sending alerts through other methods, but again it is driven by the available data.  Little data beyond the 9-1-1 database is available unless it was provided directly by the citizen.  If this data is provided through a subscription service (typically provided through a website) citizens can be notified though any SMS (text message) or SMTP (email, Blackberry, pager, etc.) device.  This relies on the citizen not only providing the data, but also maintaining the data as their contact information changes over time.


Though some technology is available that improves the accessibility of telephone notification systems, greater education of the system users is needed to ensure that it is used properly and will provide the greatest benefit to the community.  Some users do not understand the requirement to enter the text of the alert even if the alert is recorded by the person sending the alert.  They also may be unwilling to accept other contact information from citizens desiring other methods of alerting (SMS, SMTP, etc.) fearing the Pandora’s Box it will open with having to maintain and verify the additional data.  It is not at all that they do not want to accommodate the need; it is that they do not even realize the issue and thus education is needed.


Unfortunately, the technology to send alert information to TDD/TTY users is not present on all existing telephone notification systems.  Older systems may need to be replaced to add the capability of support TDD/TTY devices.  However, many localities are getting funding from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other sources to purchase new telephone notification systems.  Additionally, some companies provide this capability as a hosted service (which also supports TDD/TTY devices) so an upgrade is not required.  The technological advances cannot stop with the support of TDD/TTY.  Notification capability also needs to be added to newer technologies such as Voice over Internet Protocol (or IP more broadly) and wireless service, which cannot be tied to a single location like traditional telephone service.


Reason for Optimism for the Future


Though there is a need for education, there are organization and associations, like NENA and APCO, which are stepping up to provide this education.  The purpose of these telephone notification systems is to provide valuable information to protect lives and property.  It is not a lack of desire, but rather a lack of understand of the accessibility issues of telephone notification system that have prevented system users from meeting the needs of the hearing impaired.


Not all areas are served by a telephone notification system, but increased funding, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, will speed the deployment of notification systems and the upgrade of older systems to ones that support TDD/TTY devices.  As citizens continue to adopt newer technologies and move away from traditional telephone services, new more innovative notification methods will need to be developed.  Citizens will demand a variety of forms of notification to fit both their life style and their physical abilities.  This will continue to drive the development of newer notification systems that will include both text and voice options


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