Are You a Fox or a Hedgehog?

We just signed up to participate in a forecasting tournament on the topic of global existential risk. Over the next few months, we’ll be making forecasts on the probability of disasters such as nuclear catastrophe, massive droughts and biological weapon attacks. This is the second forecasting tournament we’ve competed in over the last five years. They’re a great motivator for researching the issues that you’re preparing for in emergency management. 

These tournaments are university-sponsored research projects designed to determine – among other things – how well “normal” people can predict future events and how their predictions compare with experts. According to the research, many lay people make predictions that outperform people who have spent years studying a topic.

One key to successful forecasting, according to this research – is whether a person is a “fox” or a “hedgehog.”  The analogy describes a fox as someone who can change their opinions relatively easily based on research and competing points of view. A hedgehog, by contrast, is someone who has a distinct world view and interprets information to fit that world view. They tend to be rigid in their beliefs and unwilling or unable to adapt to new information. 

We think the world has a role for both foxes and hedgehogs. And there are probably times when it’s appropriate to switch from one approach to another. But if your job requires you to estimate the likelihood of disaster situations, predict how people will respond to different situations and determine the best mitigation strategies – or to hire someone with those responsibilities – there’s a lot to recommend being a fox. 

How an Automated Call-In Hotline Can Help You When the Heat is On (or Off)

One of our latest products is an automated hotline to help you communicate with residents during an emergency.  It’s a pretty simple idea: you record a message with information you want the public to know and publicize the phone number. People call in to hear your message, which can be easily updated as the situation changes. 

Because we have effectively unlimited call-in capacity, there’s never a busy signal. And because it’s automated, it won’t take up valuable staff time. 

Unlike web-based communications, your residents don’t need to have a computer or be able to read to access the service. Which makes it perfect for the elderly and other populations that don’t have easy access to the Internet. You can even record the message in multiple languages or use a different number for Spanish, for example. 

Last winter Madison County, Virginia had a big power outage when it was very cold, requiring them to get the word out on shelter resources and the status of the electric system. And the hotline worked well for them.  

As Brian Gordon, the Director of Emergency Communications put it:  “The Hotline takes pressure off of vital dispatch staff and EM. It allows for the flow of information that we don’t have to actively monitor during emergency situations.” 

We should also mention that the hotline is highly cost-effective. A one-year subscription will cost you less than your cable bill. To find out more, book our demo.

Request a Demo

Nextdoor.com and Emergency Alerts

If you’re not familiar with the social media platform Nextdoor.com, we think you should look into it. Nextdoor could expand your reach when sending out emergency alerts, encouraging residents to prepare and getting information out on recovery resources and efforts. 

Nextdoor is a social media platform that is focused on where a person lives and the neighborhood or community they live in. A person registering on Nextdoor has to provide their specific address which the company claims to then verify. Postings are focused on local resources, news, events and issues. Some examples:

  • Lost pets;
  • Contractor referrals – either looking for a local contractor or offering opinions about one; 
  • Crime reports, such as break-ins, suspicious persons, etc.
  • Wildlife sightings (I saw a lot of bear sightings when I lived in Asheville, NC.)
  • Local issues: schools, zoning, etc. 

The company claims that nearly 1/3rd of US households use their app. And that might be true. The publicly available web traffic sites such as Semrush.com and Trackalytics shows that they have millions of visitors and page views. We’re also aware of a few counties where their user counts imply about 40+% of households and some counties where it’s obviously much lower. 

Nextdoor offers “Public Agency” accounts to emergency managers, public safety officials and other agencies at the municipal, county and state levels. The accounts are free and enable you to post messages to all users within your jurisdiction or to select specific neighborhoods as those are defined by the company. There’s also a point and radius map selection tool, although we’ve haven’t seen it work.  

Many different kinds of agencies use Nextdoor for communication. We’ve seen general county newsletters, traffic updates from the DOT, sanitation pickup notices and more.

Unlike Facebook and Twitter, your message goes to everyone in your area who has signed up for Nextdoor, which means you could potentially reach a lot more people than you can on other social media sites. And Nextdoor has an “Alert” category – and a separate “Safety” category – that allows you to post messages that should get more attention. 

We’ve been posting messages for clients on Nextdoor in order to encourage residents to sign up for Hyper-Reach. Those messages have been reasonably effective – adding hundreds of signups over time. 

We think Nextdoor is especially appealing to emergency managers in suburban and urban areas and probably less interesting in rural areas. The last three places I’ve lived (Charlotte and Asheville, NC and Staunton, VA) all have pretty active groups of people posting and reacting to posts. But we’ve also seen less populated areas with very little activity. Since the accounts are free, it’s an inexpensive and relatively easy way to expand your reach into the community, so it’s probably worth your agency’s time to at least check it out for your city or county. 

Some agencies have had such good success with Nextdoor that they actively encourage citizens to register for the service. 

We’ve been working on developing an integration with Nextdoor, so that messages sent from Hyper-Reach can also go to Nextdoor, similar to the integrations we have with Facebook, Twitter and other social media. And we’d like to know if you’re interested in that feature.

If you’re interested in Nextdoor, you can help us by completing this survey and passing it on to your peers: https://forms.gle/JbLdueJ4t46yNeKk8.  It asks questions about your familiarity and use of Nextdoor, as well as your interest in different integration options to make Nextdoor work well with other emergency notification systems. 

And if you want to apply for a Public Agency account, you can do that at this link: https://nextdoor.com/agency/apply

IPAWS WEA 10th Anniversary

It’s been 10 years since Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) were added to FEMA’s IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert & Warning System) system. So we thought it was a good time to review where we are with adoption of this important system. 

If you’re in emergency management, you already know that WEA are broadcast messages sent to compatible mobile phones from selected cell towers. As part of IPAWS, the messages are originated by government entities – called Alerting Authorities (AA’s), sent to the IPAWS network, which then distributes the message to mobile phone carriers. Although it’s voluntary, 100+ carriers participate in the WEA program, covering more than 99% of mobile phone subscribers. 

There are more than 1,700 government agencies approved as Alerting Authorities, of which about 600 have used the system, sending more than 70,000 alerts over the past 10 years. 

Adoption of WEA has grown rapidly over the past decade, but the rate of that growth has definitely slowed. Which might be ironic, since WEA has improved substantially in just the past few years. WEA messages can now be much longer (360 characters), offer more information (including a URL or phone number) and more precisely targeted (within 1/10th mile of the intended alert area.) That addresses most of the concerns people had with WEA initially. Jurisdictions that might have considered WEA messages to be a bad fit a few years ago can potentially make much better use of them today. 

Although it’s estimated that WEA Alerting Authorities cover more than 70% of the US population, we think there is still a lot of progress to be made in adoption of WEA among potential users. It’s not clear, for example, that every county EMA has easy access to IPAWS for issues in their area.  And there are oddities that are apparent when you analyze what agencies have been approved for WEA.

Here are some observations based on FEMA’s list of AA’s:

  • While every state has at least one agency with WEA Alerting Authority, many states have multiple agencies that are authorized. In general, where there are more than one, emergency management and the state police – or their equivalents – are authorized. But Texas stands out because their Department of Transportation is an AA.
  • Less than half of all counties have their own alerting authority. While some counties are covered by consolidated communications districts or may have access to their state’s system, we’d bet that there are still hundreds of counties without effective access to WEA.
  • Fewer than 250 municipalities have their own alerting authority. Although some of these are surely covered through other arrangements (their county EMA or a consolidated communications district), our experience suggests that many of these jurisdictions might make good use of their own access to WEA.
  • Less than 20 airports or port authorities are AAs, even though there are thousands of airports in the US. Maybe airports don’t need WEA authority, but if they do, there is clearly a gap in coverage here. 
  • Only three national parks are WEA-authorized.  8 of the 10 most visited parks in the US are not AAs.
  • Of the more than 570 recognized tribal nations in the US, less than 10 are WEA-authorized.
  • While a handful of universities are AAs – including some fairly small ones (NY Stony Brook) – the vast majority are not.
  • Exactly one water district is approved for WEA. We know of many water districts that have their own emergency alert systems. 

We’re not suggesting that every airport or water authority needs their own access to WEA messages or the IPAWS system, but we are suggesting that the question is worth asking. If LAX and DFW should have WEA authority, why not ORD, ATL or DEN?  And if Clemson University is authorized, then why not UNC or UGA?

Of course some of these anomalies can be explained away by cooperative agreements, consolidated communications districts and the like. But we know of thousands of government agencies that have an emergency notification system that could be connected to IPAWS. If it’s important to these agencies to be able to alert the public by voice, text, email, etc., then why not IPAWS/WEA?