BlackBerry AtHoc: The Solution That Could Save Your Company and Your Life

The AtHoc mobile app addresses provides early warnings and facilitates emergency response during crisis situations.

In security we often talk about employees as a problems to overcome and not, as I think they should be, as a strong part of the solution. We have tools in terms of smartphones which can effectively turn every employee into a security sensor, but for the most part, individual users have focused far more on apps like Angry Birds, than solutions that make us safer.

However, with the proliferation of violence and global unrest the need for a tool that can make an employee part of the security solution has never been greater.

This week I got a briefing by AtHoc, a firm acquired by Blackberry, to address just this issue. In my opinion, AtHoc couldn’t have found a better home because Blackberry solutions are still dominant in governments and security-focused businesses that are at higher risk than the rest of us.

The Need for an Early Warning System

The first time I personally ran into a problem like the one AtHoc addresses, I was around 14 and staying at a boys’ camp. One of the campers had a known mental problem, and apparently he had forgotten to take his medication. After accidentally hitting his thumb with a hammer, he went off the rails, picked up a cocked and loaded spear gun and went looking for kids to shoot. The first I knew of the problem was when I walked around my cabin and nearly into that spear gun. No one was actually shot, but it could have ended very badly.

As an adult, I was close to two incidents where someone brought a gun to work intending to kill someone. The first time was a husband of an employee who had been abused by her manager. He had a shotgun and intended to shoot her manager or the head of HR, a job I was in line for. Once again, no one was hurt. The last time was a bit more traumatic, and it happened at a company close to ours. In that case a lot of people were killed. We were at risk, but no real warnings went out, leaving the employees as little more than targets.

Finally, in front of my own house, I was jumped by three kids and nearly killed.

All of these experiences have given me a rather unique perspective on personal and employee protection. The last time, I was particularly struck by the fact that even though I had a cell phone and could call for help, there was no real way to alert people close to me of the problem. The process of getting through to 911 had the police arriving long after the attackers had fled (and without the intervention of my neighbors, likely sometime after I would have expired).

I’ve run a couple security organizations, and each time we had an event, the problem often was the time it took for an employee to let us know there was a problem or the time it took to figure out what the problem actually was once alerted. Your response needs to match the problem, but you often you don’t get much information from the person calling. In some cases, they may not even call in the first place because they don’t know who to call.

The AtHoc Solution

AtHoc provides an app that runs on every employee smartphone. It quickly connects to your corporate security coordinator and ties into the phone's camera for visual information. It is often far quicker to get a sense of what is going on from a picture than from any written explanation. In addition, settings allow a warning to go to a group of companies — not only to your own employees but also to other AtHoc security coordinators or directly to employees in the area. After all, if a fire breaks out or you have a shooting incident, it is likely you’ll want to evacuate the area, not just your own firm, in order to protect lives.

In addition, upon alert, each employee can respond with his or her status. Let’s say you have an earthquake. By the time you issue a warning, everyone likely knows there is an earthquake, but you’ll want to focus on getting aid to the people who are injured. With this tool, coupled with the phone’s sensors, these folks can tell you whether they need aid and what kind of aid they need so the necessary resources can be dispatched in timely manner.

Granted you’d likely need to still have some training and regular drills so the employees didn’t forget about the app and could use it effectively.

Possible Improvements

While the tool is impressive, I noticed several things I’d like to have added to it. Much like you can now open the camera without logging into your phone, I’d like the option of having this app launch without needing to log in. In a crisis, creating a fast path to the app could save lives.

I’d like a voice interface option in case the user is disabled, can’t free up their hands, or is injured. I’d like to see if the app could be launched remotely — in other words where the central controller could vocally alert the people in the area or attempt to connect to an employee, who might be disabled or injured, but not able to reach his or her phone. And I’d like to see an easier way to stream so the central administrator can use the employee like a mobile security camera more easily if needed.

Oh, and one other thing might be handy in a disaster. While the app does provide things like maps and packaged instructions during a crisis, it might be handier to link to the GPS in the phone with dynamic routing to the nearest rally point, thus giving each employee at risk a faster path to safety.


In IT, we often talk about security-in-depth, which involves various layers of applications and solutions that together create a safer workspace. But we rarely talk about safety-in-depth — and yet our actual lives may depend on the existence of the latter.

I think AtHoc fills a very specific and necessary need if we want our employees, friends and even our kids (I could see this used in schools) to be safer. It could become a critical tool that could change the people we want to keep safe from largely being a big part of the problem to becoming a big part of the solution.

There are a number of times in my life when I wish I’d had access to a tool like this. Here is hoping that, when you need it, you and the people you care about have access to something like AtHoc. Maybe thinking about ensuring that outcome will assure you don’t have the regrets I have.

Be safe.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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