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New Tech Tools Help Emergency Managers Counter Public Apathy

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

*This is part two of a two-part series on the latest Federal Signal Public Safety Survey.*

By Matt Brady

According to the 2013 Public Safety study, emergency managers are leveraging town hall meetings and local community sponsored events (i.e., picnics, seasonal festivals) to spread awareness of existing personal alert and notification systems accessible through cellphone, smartphone and other wireless broadband technologies. In most cases, the thorough deployment of advanced cellphone and text-messaging warning/notification systems requires the public to take minimal steps to register their contact information.

Additionally, nearly seven in 10 emergency managers reported that they support community education via a website or social media page, while 66 percent said they have used direct mail and telemarketing strategies to connect with citizens.

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The deployment of new technology continues to energize significant changes in emergency warning and mass notification. This is evident in the widespread use of text messaging for personal alerting. In other cases, the incorporation of technology can be remarkably subtle and yet still very effective. For example, research from the University of Buffalo suggests color-coding text messages to distinguish between slow-moving emergencies, such as a snowstorm, and fast-moving emergencies, such as a campus shooting or tornado.

Despite the transition to weather warnings that emphasize storm tracks as opposed to geographic boundaries, residents in locations relatively unaffected by the actual storm are oftentimes still included within the warning boundaries. This was exactly what happened across remote areas of Jasper County that were unaffected by the May tornado that swept through the metro-Joplin area in 2011. The need for narrower, more tightly targeted geographic alerts is also a significant contention cited by Professor Hugh Gladwin, a researcher based at Florida International University.

Gladwin asserts that emergency warnings necessarily cover large geographic areas, but make it difficult to convey local risk. “In the case of hurricanes, storm surge is the most serious life-threatening risk. However, these surges can be highly localized, affecting only a small area within the boundaries of the total area of the emergency alert.” He notes that many technology companies serving the field of emergency communications are addressing this concern through development of products/systems that employ global positioning technology. This would include software-based communication platforms with GIS (Graphic Information System) tracking apps to define more precisely geographic parameters of an emergency alert.

Geo-targeting, a solution that helps to define more accurate and more compact geographic regions is another location based technology that results in better targeted alerts. Systems such as Federal Signal’s GeoSpear™, an ESRI-based GIS app, enable emergency managers to issue alerts and detailed notifications to points on a map by just drawing circles, rectangles or free-form polygons. These systems also allow users to select ZIP codes, towns, counties–even power grids and water supply lines–from pre-defined map layers.

The County of Abbeville, SC provides an example of a municipality that decided to tighten the targeting of alerts in order to eliminate any hesitation on the part of its citizens to take necessary precautions in the event of an impending disaster. Seven years ago the county deployed a mass citizen alerting system along with a GIS application to issue urgent alerts and notifications. In addition to first responders, these alerts go out to designated geographic areas as well as to any of the county’s 25,000 citizens who may be located in the path of an approaching storm.

From SMS to SNS…new media technology offers emergency managers more options than ever to improve the publics’ disaster response.

Emergency managers have discovered that text messaging, often referred to as SMS for Short Message System, offers a number of advantages over cell phones, text-enabled pagers and other wireless devices. SMS does not rely on voice channels nor does it piggyback on enterprise email servers. Because it requires substantially less bandwidth than voice messages, text messaging can be transmitted in small packets of data on wireless carriers’ control channels. This ensures the dependable transmission that encourages peoples’ trust, and promotes usage, making it ideal for emergency notification. SMS also offers greater convenience because, unlike voice messaging that requires manual re-dialing, text messages remain in queue and increase the likelihood messages will be transmitted.

SMS has already displayed its value as an emergency communications tool. For those affected by Hurricane Katrina, the mega-quake/tsunami that devastated Northern Japan in March 2011, and the earthquake that struck the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. in August 2011, SMS was among the few sources of up-to-the-minute disaster information and instructions until cellular and landline phone service was restored.

As was prominently noted in Federal Signal’s 2010 Public Safety Survey, as well as numerous other studies on personal communication preferences, SMS is now clearly preferred among younger age groups than other modes of communication such as phone and email.

Facebook and Twitter stand out as a testament to the continually growing acceptance of Social Networking Services (SNS), and are now considered a viable information source in the event of a crisis. SNS also serves as a reliable backup for landlines and cell phones that become inoperable when infrastructure is damaged during a disaster.

When the mega-earthquake and tsunami struck the Japanese coastline in 2011, spike in demand virtually shut down cellular voice service. Facebook and Twitter subsequently surfaced as one of the few means of communication for many people. Later, when the tsunami raced eastward toward Hawaii, the County of Maui’s Facebook page recorded a 700 percent increase in the number of “fans,” again illustrating how people will become proactive in seeking emergency information and instruction if they know a source is available to them. Suffice to say that many emergency managers took notice of this phenomenon.

Like Facebook, Twitter is also being employed by a growing number of emergency agencies. During the tornado outbreak that swept through North Texas in the spring of 2012, Twitter was incorporated into the emergency response efforts of the local Red Cross and the Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport. Similarly, more and more municipalities continue to incorporate social media into their crisis communications.

Continued development of IPAWS provides public safety agencies with an invaluable tool for broadening emergency communications within their own communities.

Ongoing deployment of the government mandated Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) provides emergency managers with an exciting opportunity to further expand their disaster communications efforts. The purpose of IPAWS is to connect the originators of emergency alerts and warnings to a server which then aggregates and disseminates this information to the appropriate systems.

Commercially available software-based communications platforms, such as Federal Signal’s SmartMsg system, provide an effective interface capability. These systems quickly and effectively bridge alerts from various authorities (National Weather Service/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Homeland Security, etc.) in order to expedite communications with critical emergency personnel as well as issue mass notifications to the general public. Beyond supporting the ability to receive, query and initiate IPAWS alerts, systems like SmartMsg also provide a single-point of control to initiate alerts and other critical warning functions including remote outdoor siren activation.

Emergency management professionals have access to more tools than ever before to help them connect with their local communities during an emergency. With the new technologies that become available, come new challenges in navigating the different solutions and working them into the “layered” communication approach. It is clear that citizens are using multiple types of communication tools to receive their information and challenges will persist. As emergency management professionals learn to layer tools like traditional weather alerts with social media notifications and IPAWS, the integrated communication strategies are better positioned to reach the targeted groups that need to be alerted ruing emergency situations.

Author: Matt Brady is the Vice President and General Manager of Global Solutions, North America for Federal Signal Corporation.

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