Adding Digital Signs to Your Alert System

EPISODE 20 | Guest: Sean Matthews, president and CEO of Visix

Having comprehensive and integrated alert capabilities is important to every kind of organization – from schools and universities to corporate campuses, medical facilities to manufacturing plants, government offices and hotels – anywhere people gather in large numbers. The first step is to put together a crisis communications plan that unites all parts of your alert system.

A report by Solution estimates that the mass notification market will be worth $9.69 billion by the year 2021, as more and more organizations adopt robust alert notification plans, and municipalities, counties and even whole states are launching interoperable emergency communications systems with grants and funding options to help deploy them.

Digital signage can be a key element in a good on-site alert system. Learn how it fits into the puzzle, how the technology talks to each other and tips for making sure everything runs as smoothly as possible if there’s an emergency.

  • Discover how digital signs fit into a larger alert strategy
  • Explore how to ensure comprehensive coverage
  • Learn about funding options for safety systems
  • Get tips on the types of messages and designs to prepare
  • Hear 7 steps to a good crisis communications plan

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Learn more about this topic in our Masterclass Guide 1: Digital Signage Systems Overview


Derek DeWitt: Alert and emergency notifications are obviously a very important part of, really, any organizational communications plan. Any type of organization, any size of organization; honestly, anywhere that is responsible for large numbers of people, or any number of people, who congregate together. I think there was a report by Solution, the company Solution, recently that says by the year 2021, in just two years, the mass notification market’s going to be worth $9.69 billion. So everybody’s getting on board with this stuff. It’s not just a good idea; it’s becoming an essential element of all of this. Today I’m here with Sean Matthews, president and CEO of Visix. Hi Sean.

Sean Matthews: Hello Derek. Thank you for having me.

Derek DeWitt: Thank you, Sean, for coming on and thank you everybody for listening.

Derek DeWitt: I mean, obviously no one wants a crisis to arise, but it’s obviously better to have a safe and comprehensive plan in place that you maybe never need, rather than needing one and not having one, right?

Sean Matthews: Yeah, most definitely. Unfortunately, most organizations, either public or private organizations, particularly large ones, they have some sort of emergency response process. And then, of course, associated with that is a notification process.

Obviously, the first thing has to occur, which is the emergency response, and then from there, as you begin to understand the situation, you can more effectively alert people. Obviously, the idea is to keep people abreast of events as they occur. I mean, that’s the thing.

I think we’ve all been in situations where, I don’t care if you’re stuck on an airplane, on the tarmac for hours on end, you know, if the captain does a good job of keeping you abreast, you feel a little bit better about the situation than if you’re just sitting there in the dark with nothing going on.

Derek DeWitt: Right. “I wonder why we’re still here.”

Sean Matthews: Most definitely. And I think most people understand that; that’s a natural human desire to understand what’s going on, particularly when it could have some negative impact on you or even your survival.

Derek DeWitt: Digital signage seems to be a pretty useful part of any sort of alert notifications program or plan. I mean, the screens are everywhere, hopefully. Talk a little bit about that. I kind of feel like anybody who has digital signage should absolutely incorporate it into their alert notifications.

Sean Matthews: Yeah, digital signs, and we can talk about this for a really long time, but they’re just part of the multi-tiered mass notification layer. The most common thing I think people think about these days is, if you’re from my generation, you think about the emergency alert service that you would hear on television. That stuff’s been around for a long time, the emergency alert system.

Of course, you know, in the post-9/11 world, obviously a lot of things have changed. FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security has their own high-layer technology, which is called I-PAWS, and then there are other technologies that fall below that. But there are a lot of different systems out there for keeping people abreast of what’s on. And I think it’s an important element of dealing with emergency situations, for sure.

Derek DeWitt: If someone is using a digital signage system that, whatever, the version they have doesn’t have alert capabilities, I think they should obviously contact the vendor and see how they can get those integrated.

And you mentioned public organizations, I think they’re compelled to have some kind of an alert notification system. And I know obviously it saves lives, but you can actually, I think you can save time and money as well. You mentioned FEMA, there are some opportunities out there for funding I think, right?

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I mean there are a fair number of opportunities in terms of funding these types of things. And again, you could be a public entity or even a private entity that is responsible for a lot of people being on site. So think about sports venues, very large entertainment venues (which might be really entire cities almost if you think about the types of entertainment venues I’m speaking of) but there are a lot of monies associated with this in terms of Homeland Security grant programs. The state Homeland Security program, at certain points, has given as much as $350 million out in any given fiscal year to help alert notification.

The Urban Areas Security Initiative is another. Operation Stonegarden is another one. And even the US Department of Education has its own programs and, depending on the year, they’ve given nearly $10 million a year to higher education institutions for emergency management plans. So it’s big money out there, that you noted even early on, that a lot of people are getting into this business.

You know, it really for an important purpose, right? I mean, you think about what goes on in the world and people don’t want to talk about those situations, but they do happen, and they happen often here in the United States. But it’s not even just those man-made situations; there’s a lot of natural disasters that occur in the form of fire, in the form of tornadoes and certainly earthquakes.

Derek DeWitt: Flood.

Sean Matthews: Floods, all of those types of things. A lot of natural disasters occur that people need advanced notice, particularly those who are left behind for some reason or were not aware of this impending thing, and digital signs just become another layer, given their physical size and ability to convey a lot of information in big letters and visuals, in important parts of the physical property that you may be on.

Derek DeWitt: Mobile text notifications just aren’t enough.

Sean Matthews: That’s correct. Yeah.

Derek DeWitt: You might almost make the argument that this is, in many ways, the most important way to use digital signage. Because the stakes are way higher. Yeah, it’d be great if everybody went to the Dean’s address, but nothing bad happens if that doesn’t work out, or the muffin sale falls short of its goals or something like that. But in a situation like this, you’re talking about injury or worse. So this, in many ways, is the most important thing that you can use your digital signage for.

And I think it’s important because it’s gotta be smooth, it’s gotta be fast, you’ve gotta be reacting as quickly as events unfold. You’ve got to get the information out there as close to realtime as humanly possible. And you’ve got to have a plan in place so that, when people’s emotions run high, they can kind of go, “Oh, okay. Right. This is what we’re supposed to do.” And even automate these things as much as possible. I mean, how do you plan out a system like this?

Sean Matthews: When you think about systems like this, again, I mentioned this earlier, it’s part of a multi-tiered approach to communications. So you think about the popular tiers at the top of the stack are…text messaging (SMS) is very popular. You think about loudspeakers on college campuses or even in parks, email messages… But digital displays are probably the number four or five most accessible vehicle for delivering this type of information.

So when you think about building infrastructure for that, you’re thinking about how you design the alerts in advance. What do they look like? What do they say? How are they triggered? Should you color code the alerts? So maybe everything that’s red is fire-related, everything that’s blue is water-related or in some way, shape or form, right?

So, you want to create visuals that help guide people to safety and tell them what to do next. I mean that’s the important piece of the puzzle. You want to create easy to follow instructions on the display. Right after the alert is announced, and the alert might be announced via text messaging or loudspeakers, but as you make your way out into the hallway, for example, you have guidance that’s telling you where to go.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. Maybe you forgot what that text message just said because you’ve dropped your phone.

Sean Matthews: Or you’re panicking.

Derek DeWitt: Because you’re panicking, yeah.

Sean Matthews: And so, even using simple arrows to direct people to the stairwells versus the elevators is a common use of this technology. And you need for the technology to override its normal function. I mean 99.9% of the time you’re going to be showing announcements and events and things that you’re trying to get people to do.

Derek DeWitt: Memes.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. those kinds of things. But in this 1/10th of 1% of the time, you want it to quickly override what’s on screen and convey a message that is relevant and timely to those who are being affected.

So, building a plan for things like common things that you may run into, you know, tornado warnings, earthquakes on the West Coast, that kind of thing. You need technologies that are associated with this, so that those people that are part of the emergency response process (often law enforcement people or law enforcement representatives or counterparts associated with it), those are the people responsible for triggering the notification process. And that notification process is often one that they use a single point trigger that triggers other alert notification platforms, so that from one platform they can trigger many others. And therefore, the message or the announcement, or subsets thereof, are replicated throughout the organization.

Derek DeWitt: You’re talking about CAP.

Sean Matthews: Yes, in fact. So CAP is one of the real standards. CAP is the responsible standard that underlies the federal government’s platform, which is called I-PAWS. And the whole I-PAWS thing is the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. CAP is an organization that is responsible for designing standards, and the common alerting protocol standard is one that works over all kinds of networks, right?

And so if you think about SMS systems, which are text messaging systems, most of those create CAP-compliant triggers that can trigger other platforms that can respond to that trigger. So, the cool thing about this standard is it already identifies the types of common emergencies that we might run into, all the way down to like biological hazard. And so, you can create messages in advance, and/or instructions in advance so that when the biological hazard trigger occurs, the instructions are already predefined.

Derek DeWitt: Right. You’ve already done this work ahead of time when everything was nice and safe, and suddenly the airborne toxic event notice goes up. I mean it could conceivably be that, yeah, there might be something so outside-of-the-box that you have to type it in to the system somehow. Like, “Hey, guess what? The aliens are here and they’re not friendly.” But, very likely, that’s not going to happen.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I feel like these guys have done a really good job of identifying the most common things. And, quite frankly, there’s one that’s just called “Threat” and you know, “Threat” covers obviously a lot of things.

Derek DeWitt: Straightforward.

Sean Matthews: Yup. And you can append that message with whatever text you want. In fact, the best alert notification systems that are tied to digital signage allow the digital signage system to ingest those text messages, so that as they come in and as the events change over time and the appended messages arrive, they supersede the previous messages. So, as the events unfold, you want the instructions to change as they unfold.

Derek DeWitt: One of the great benefits of this stuff on digital signage is the speed, right? You really want to design for things to go as quickly, as quickly, as humanly, humanly possible.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. And the illustration there is, if you have all of your messages predefined in advance and you’re relying on this CAP trigger, the CAP trigger becomes almost like the easy button. So once the law enforcement community makes the decision to start that notification process, they go to one source, which is easy to use (it’s not a complicated interface) and then that trigger causes all of these other platforms to go into their mode of operation, in terms of initiating a mass notification.

Derek DeWitt: Make sure it’s a really easy to read font, make sure the instructions are as clear, but as short, as possible to get across all of the information. No one is going to, as they’re running past a TV on a wall that has stuff, no one’s going to go, “Hold on a second, let me take a look and read all five sentences here.” But also, if it just says, “Run!”, with an arrow, I don’t know how helpful that will be. What do I do when I get to the end of the corridor, right?

Sean Matthews: These displays, in most cases, are big, and they’re really designed to put big pieces of information on screen.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, boom!

Sean Matthews: You know, simple instructions. Again, “Use the stairwells, not the elevators”…

Derek DeWitt: …Don’t use the elevators….

Sean Matthews: …and an arrow pointing to that stairwell.

Derek DeWitt: Unless the danger is in the stairwell, obviously. “Warning: do not use stairwells: monster.”

It’s also useful, not just as an emergency unfolds, like you said, it can adjust what’s up on the displays as events change, as the emergency sort of progresses and eventually peters out and everything’s fine again. Post-event recovery can also be a part of this, right? Talk about that, how you can use that to kind of interface with the community and get back up and running.

Sean Matthews: After the event is over and all said and done, you want people to feel safe and understand that the entire situation is safe, that emergency responders are on site, whatever other crews of people are there. You know, you want them to understand that, “Hey, we’ve, we already have a plan for recovery. In fact, these are our steps in the recovery process.”

You can even use the signs to help convey where you are in that recovery process and what’s coming next, so that people really get this sense that you’re in charge, you understand what’s going on, and this is how we’re going to recover from what just happened. It’s a good tool for that because, again, you can incorporate visual elements that you can’t do just in a text message.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. And I think giving some details like that is good. I mean, we’ve talked in other podcasts about how transparency is very important, especially to millennials. But also, you know, you were in the middle of something, oh my gosh, there’s a fire, for example; it’s in my wing, out I go, all my stuff’s in there. Boom. And one way that you will handle that stress, and try and make sense of it and create a context in which you can be calm, is to have details or information.

So feeding that to people can help them in their own personal recovery as well. As well as letting the community know, “Hey, hey guys, we got this, we’re okay.” But obviously it’s only part of the puzzle. Digital signage alone wouldn’t be enough.

Sean Matthews: Right. I mean, digital signage by itself, it’s not a life-safety platform. You can’t equate instructions or notices to the effectiveness of, let’s say, a sprinkler system in a building that’s on fire. I mean, it’s not that level of life safety. But it’s a good tool for conveying where to go and what to do next.

Derek DeWitt: That’s a lot of information. And obviously when we’re talking crisis communications plans, we want things to be very, very clear. So in that spirit, let’s just kind of go through like the seven steps, basically, to creating a crisis communications plan.

Sean Matthews: The number one thing is you need a plan that starts at the top. There has to be buy-in from the very top. This is not a bottom-up strategy. This is a team of people that are concerned about the wellbeing of everyone that’s in their organization. And so it has to start at the top with an emergency response process. And then associated with that is a notification process.

Derek DeWitt: This is not something you want to crowdsource.

Sean Matthews: No, it is definitely not. And it’s not something you’re just going to find on the internet. This takes involvement from a lot of different parties, to ensure that it’s going to work.

You want to keep it simple. That’s the next thing. You want to keep it simple, so that when the event unfolds, there are tools and resources to trigger the appropriate mass notification layers. And you want the guidance and instruction to be simple, and you want it to reinforce the other vehicles that are also delivering information to those affected by whatever it may be.

The next thing, of course, you want to deal with is roleplaying and testing. So, we run into these things all the time. They test it one time, and like in a small subset, and unfortunately people do this even with SMS testing; so they send messages to a subset of the mass notification group and it’s just, say, administrators on a team or whatever.

Derek DeWitt: Who knew it was coming.

Sean Matthews: That’s correct, who knew it was coming. But instead, what you should really consider is announcing in advance that “This Thursday, we’re going to conduct a test at approximately 4:00 PM,” because the reality is you might have a college campus with 36,000 students, another 10,000 professors and administrators on there, plus visitors and others. So you have this major, major population that could be affected by this test. Because it might not just be SMS, it could be digital signs, it could be loudspeakers, emails, it could be all kinds, website announcements. So testing is key and important because you want to make sure it’s going to work.

Of course you want it to be fast, you want it to be responsive, you want to make sure that there’s no lag in the displays and they are immediately ingesting this information and transforming the message on the screen to affect the population that might be impacted by this situation.

Derek DeWitt: Right, as events unfold.

Sean Matthews: That’s correct. You obviously want to cover all your bases. Certainly, you want to make sure that, not only do you announce to people on campus, but you announce to the community at large, so there’s no rumors that occur after this test, for example. But you want to make sure that everyone is involved, not only in the emergency response process, but also the notification process, who cover everything. Anybody that could be affected, you want them to be aware of what’s going on.

Of course, you have to consider the communication methods that you’re using and the types of information that you’re delivering over those various mediums. Because you can put a lot on a webpage, you can put a lot in an email message and it gets less, you know, on a cellphone or some other mobile devices, it becomes less in Twitter. Right? So you gotta think about that.

Derek DeWitt: And, frankly, [on] the digital signs even less.

Sean Matthews: That’s correct. Because it could be limited to simple instructions, as we alluded to earlier, with some arrows pointing you in the right direction. And that’s it.

Derek DeWitt: It almost makes me think that digital signage messages are, like, 10% information, 90% call to action.

Sean Matthews: It really is. And then the last thing you want to do is think about the future. You’re going to expand this technology. You might incorporate other multi-tiered elements in the mass notification strata or that sort of thing. You want to make sure that you’ve thought about the future because these technologies are going to evolve.

You might want to incorporate more social media or less, depending on how the population in your environment deals with social media. So, the one thing you really want to consider is you can’t future-proof everything that you can certainly consider what’s going to happen in the future and how it might affect your notification strategy.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. Be as prepared as you possibly can and constantly be updating, re-evaluating, testing. And I think when you test it should be as real-world as possible.

Sean Matthews: That’s correct.

Derek DeWitt: Like don’t put up “Test”. Make it look real.

Sean Matthews: It can look real, with maybe “Test” at the bottom. “This is just a test.”

Derek DeWitt: All right. Thank you for talking to us, Mr. Matthews.

Sean Matthews: I enjoyed being here. Thank you.

Derek DeWitt: All right, and thank you everybody for listening.