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The New Emergency Alert A-Z: From Amber Alerts to a Zombie Apocalypse

“We interrupt this program. This is a national emergency. The President of the United States or his designated representative will appear shortly over the Emergency Broadcast System.”

Do these words sound familiar? They should. That is because they comprise a message from the Emergency Alert System. Most of us have probably seen the tests conducted by the Emergency Alert System while we are watching television or heard them listening to the radio system. Usually these alerts occur during our favorite show or at the end of a close ball game or other times when we least want to see them. However, while for some of us these alerts may be extremely inconvenient, for many of us they are a critical life line. The Emergency Broadcasting System (EBS) is a pivotal public sector tool used by administrators dating back to the end of WWII and into the Cold War Era.

The EBS has long served as a way for the United States government to inform as many citizens as possible in as short a time as possible during moments of crisis. Still used today, this system is hampered by many shortcomings that have emerged during the rapid technological resources innovations that were not available during its inception. However, these shortcomings are being fixed by new technology that is being rapidly embraced by many public sector agencies as they update their systems. Fortunately for today’s public administrators we have many more technological resources at our disposal. New technologies in the digital age have allowed for innovative ways to alert the public. Today, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) or Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS)  have moved citizen emergency preparedness into the new millennium of digital government.


How it Works

Much like the Emergency Alert System, WEAs enable government agencies to deliver important information to the public. However, WEAs enable direct access to the public almost anywhere and anytime within cellular phone range through the integration of social networking and text messaging. Hold on a minute. Why would WEAs rely upon cellphones to reach citizens during a crisis? Turns out, cellphones are everywhere. In the United States, 87% of adults have a cellphone and cellphones are in most households despite socio-economic status. Notably, a recent United Nations study identified that more people around the world have access to a cellular phone than they do a toilet. The ubiquity of cellphones around the country and around the globe suggests that engaging citizens about emergency alerts could best be accomplished via cellular technology. The question for administrators is not whether they should embrace this medium to rapidly disseminate information to a much larger population, but rather, how can they do so effectively? What new technologies must be harnessed to accomplish this mission and improve public safety during emergencies?

Rapid response may be good, but is it more important than being able to keep the public up-to-date with accurate information they really need to know? Should the information be two-way? During emergencies, information is great, but the accuracy and validity of the information can be very different for people in different locations. Weather emergencies such as hurricanes and snowstorms typically result in local power outages, flooding, property and road damage that can widely vary across towns, neighborhood, or blocks. Storms can also create health hazards, such as temporarily contaminated water supplies or increases in criminal activity. Just a short while ago this information wouldn’t be received by responders until the aftermath. Today, utilizing a WEA social messaging platform like govdelivery allows the public to contribute information from the streets in real time. The faster and more accurate the information, the better public administrators are able to respond to their communities. The Federal Communications Commission has an extensive overview of the new Wireless Emergency Alerts as well as a printable pdf for further guidance.


WEAs in Action

A free exchange of information empowers the public to take action and participate, for example, as it did during Hurricane Sandy  or previously with the brushfires that devastated Australia. In both of these instances, citizens were able to coordinate relief efforts, tally the dead, raise funds, and identify and locate support for those most affected. Rather than a passive receipt of emergency information, new technology enables active, real time response among citizens and first responders. This is an innovation that is being strengthened nationally. Right now, building a new system for first responders is in progress through the U.S. National Telecommunications & Information Administration within the Department of Commerce. This new system is known as FirstNet and is a massive undertaking to bring all first responders in the United States together within a coordinated network, bridging public and private sectors.

Wireless Emergency Alerts are one way digital media is transforming government services to better meet citizen need. From weather warnings, general announcements, civic engagement, and general information, federal, state and local government agencies can be quickly accessed through WEAs at any time to prepare for any disaster, even the zombie apocalypse .


Authors: Pat Moroney, Graduate Research Assistant, Pace University Web 2.0 Interdisciplinary Informatics Institute , Hillary J. Knepper, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration, Pace University; Christopher J. Godfrey, Ph.D. Director, Web 2.0 Interdisciplinary Informatics Institute Department of Psychology, Pace University,. Contact: [email protected]  


Image courtesy of http://www.selective.com/WebApplications/EDS/PublicSite/Main/PublicNewsDetail.aspx?PublicNewsID=151.

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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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