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Emergency Communication Challenges: New Technologies Address Obstacles

http://www.lakecountyohio.gov

http://www.lakecountyohio.gov

By Federal Signal Corporation

In the past decade, a number of large scale natural disasters have struck the United States, continuously revealing issues within emergency communications around the country. Those in public administration roles should be aware of these challenges as they are often tasked with communicating with the citizens in their communities. As the technology landscape continues to change, administrators involved with their community’s emergency communication strategies are faced with overcoming hurdles, such as interoperability of public safety organizations’ communication technologies and general public complacency. Public administrators can use technology to overcome these challenges and learn from specific instances where new technologies have improved communication systems.

 

Addressing Interoperability and Complacency

Interoperability and complacency both play a role in the success of a fluid emergency communication strategy. Interoperability is defined by SAFECOM, an emergency communications program sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security, as the ability of emergency responders to work seamlessly with other systems or products without any special effort. A challenge for public administrators is to ensure that emergency communication systems and tools will allow multiple public safety organizations to interact with one another.  Key issues, according to a National Task Force Report, include incompatible and aging communications equipment, limited and fragmented planning and coordination, and limited equipment standards, to name a few.

Public administrators should be able to communicate seamlessly with multiple public safety organizations in order to effectively work together.  Using the latest technologies and updating current systems, these issues are being addressed with a number of government inspired programs that provide a solution for interoperable communications.  Federal Signal’s software-based SmartMsg™ is an example of a communications platform that allows for successful communication between multiple people, with multiple devices, in multiple locations.

The second issue public administrators should understand is complacency. Community members are not always aware or receptive to emergency warnings, and they often don’t know whether systems are in place to protect them. Creating a strong sense of urgency among community members before or during and emergency situation poses an ongoing challenge. Deciding which new technologies will most effectively communicate messages – and result in community members taking action – requires an understanding of the human factors that contribute to complacency.  Advanced technologies and strategies are needed to reach people in multiple ways and reduce or eliminate the disconnect that exists between public administration’s public safety objectives and Americans’ emergency-related attitudes and behaviors.

Using a combination of traditional and new technologies can help public administrators reach a large audience more successfully. The 2012 Federal Signal Public Safety Survey highlights the trends and growing influence of mobile devices for emergency communications, finding that nearly one-third (29 percent) of respondents ages 18-29 preferred text messages to any other form of emergency notification.  Not only can text messages reach community members instantly, but technology like Federal Signal’s GeoSpear application allows for location-based messages to be sent to a specific geographic area.

The diverse factors that make up U.S. communities, including multiple spoken languages, people with disabilities, a spectrum of ages, and technical abilities, no longer allows for public administrators to rely on a single method of communication. Additionally, according to Federal Signal’s survey, 71 percent of Americans are unsure or unaware if their community has a personal alerting and notification system for public safety issues. The combination of human factors and complacency requires public administrators to strategically plan how they will reach citizens. Emergency managers must maintain flexibility and address complacency factors to effectively communicate with the varying communication preferences and needs of all individuals and improve overall public safety alertness and response,.

Past and Present Learning

Natural disasters and public emergencies put entire cities, states and region in danger ever year. Because the threats will never cease, public administrators must learn how to manage communications during and after critical moments. There is a benefit to both examining past situations to see the rise in new technologies related to emergency communication and looking forward to current and new projects where communication systems are implementing new technologies.

New technology has enabled sirens to work more effectively by incorporating modern software into new and existing siren infrastructures.  For example, the prominence of social media updates throughout Hurricane Sandy points to the growing reliance on these platforms for real-time emergency updates and news.  Today’s cellular and satellite networks equip sirens to communicate through tones, text-to-voice, pre-recorded audio and more, allowing public administrators to customize communications and effectively reach more people.

After the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, interoperability became a critical, national priority.  One of the many tragedies associated with the disaster occurred due to the inability to effectively relay warnings to fire rescue personal in the towers that needed immediate evacuation. The ability for public administrators to communicate together with multiple public safety organizations was highly underestimated until this point.  Upgrading systems, deploying new technologies, and understanding the importance of compatible communication within organizations is a crucial step it addressing interoperability.

Federal Signal has recently completed the first phase of a fully integrated, statewide siren network in Hawaii. A state like Hawaii faces unique challenges in terms of natural disasters and warning systems. Not only is its location prone to tsunamis, which can require  immediate evacuations, but the complex geography and fragmented landscape add an extra level of challenge in ensuring an adequate communication system is in place. The emergency warning and communications system being implemented, the first of its kind, covers the largest geographical area of any U.S. system, and the implications of the technology spread far beyond Hawaii.

From a system that previously was compromised of a variety of product ages and versions with different capabilities, the modern, hybrid system will now integrate multiple systems and networks will now allow customized communication – from statewide alerts to local community notifications – at the touch of a button. Using satellite and cellular-based communications to replace existing VHF, trunked radio networks and aging siren equipment, a new state-of-the-art infrastructure will provide the state with the ability to monitor all sirens from a centralized location.

Advancing Emergency Communication Strategies

As states and communities continue to update communication systems, Hawaii can serve as a standard of best practices in implementing new, integrated technology. For the industry and future of emergency communication, these examples show an advancement of technologies and symbolize the next generation of advanced, hybrid technologies that will help keep communities better protected in emergencies and natural disasters.

Public administrators can play a critical role the public communication system and strategy of the cities and states that they work for. As technologies continue to evolve and the communication landscape continues changing, understanding how to combat complacency and interoperability can prove to be a step forward in the success of communicating with the public as well as the multiple public safety organizations that function within a community.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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