Emergency communication choices: Part one

Published 4 October 2006

We review the utility of landlines, mobile phones, and IT telephony in an emergency; next week we consider conference calling, faxing, paging, and text

The backbone of every business continuity plan is its communications system. Data storage facilities are important; so too are remote work areas and redundant service agreements. Yet without a durable way for management to relay its orders to employees and vendors, it will all be for naught. Choosing an appropriate emergency communication system is vital. “Simplicity, ease of use, reliability under heavy use and basic effectiveness” are the key attributes to look for, says Harvey Fawcett. Following his lead, we review the choices:



Pro: The Public Switched Telephone Network is extremely resistant beyond the local exchange level. During times of heavy use, such as during an emergency, service providers typically implement call gapping to prevent system overload. Power outages will also destroy most office connectivity, but inexpensive phones that do not require a power source may still function

Con: During a long-term emergency, flooding or other major problems may prevent adequate maintenance of the system. A direct hit on a switching station, as happened with the destruction of 140 West Street, a major telecommunications hub, during the 9/11 attacks, may also disrupt landline service

Recommendations: Companies should carefully examine their maintenance contracts and consider independant routing of their telecommunications curcuits to avoid problems associated with local infrastructure damage

IP telephony

Pro: As with traditional landlines, IP telephony is as strong as the network on which it relies

Con: IP telephony relies on electrical power to function, either from a local circuit or from a Power over Ethernet (PoE) connection. Although PoE-powered IP telephones may operate in a crisis, overheating is a serious risk. An overreliance on IP telephony, moreover, may slow down other critical network functions

Recommendations: As with landline systems, companies should reevaluate their telephony and electrical systems. They should also consider providing critical personnel access to private IP telephony providers such as Skype and Vonage, services that will allow the user to avoid using the company’s network at a critical time

Mobile telephones

Pro: Mobile telephones, as well as the networks to which they are connected, are resilient in the face of local power outages (at least until the batteries run out). During an emergency, mobile phones will likely play the key role in locating employees and taking the first steps toward continuity

Con: As with landlines, infrastructure damage to relay towers and other hubs may disrupt service. Providers may employ half rate encoding systems, which sacrifice individual connection quality for greater network capacity, or use call gapping to reduce stress from calls into the network. Local corporate phone networks, such as those that utilize call groups and short dialing codes, will be equally affected by network loss

Recommendations: Because 3G networks have proven themselves more reslient than others (mainly because adoption rates have been low), companies should think about providing 3G-compliant mobile phones to critical personnel. They should also consider spreading their corporate accounts among a number of providers to ensure against local network or infrastructure failure

-read more in Harvey Fawcett’s Continuity Central discussion