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?

Check Out Our Reviews on Capterra!

There are a number of websites that collect customer surveys for software providers, including Capterra, G2, TrustRadius, and others.  

These sites are a great resource for you and your peers when selecting a vendor for an emergency mass notification system. The sites we’ve looked at all provide mechanisms to ensure that the reviews are from verified users of the system and they include structured forms to try to get a reasonably thorough review of the system in question. Although they are paid for by the vendors being reviewed, there’s no opportunity for the vendor to directly interfere with the review process or to submit their own reviews. 

For Hyper-Reach, we decided to start with Capterra.com, which is run by Gartner, a global market research firm. We asked all of our customers to submit a review and offered them a $50 gift card or contribution to the charity of their choice as a thank you. Capterra also offers another thank you worth $20 (also a gift card or charitable contribution.) Both gifts are offered regardless of whether the review is positive or negative.  

So far, we’ve been gratified by the response. Our rating – 4.9 out of 5 – is one of the highest among emergency notification providers and includes many very positive comments. You can see for yourself at https://www.capterra.com/emergency-notification-software/.  You’ll also find reviews for other vendors as well, although you might need to scroll down the list a bit. All the major providers are there: Everbridge (4.3), OnSolve (no reviews), Rave (4.7) and others.

While the reviews we’ve received have been wonderful, we’re trying to get more. So we’re reminding our customers of this opportunity again and again. 

We’re planning to collect reviews for other review sites as well. So hopefully you’ll be seeing us – with similar 5-star reviews – on G2 and similar sites. But it’s a time-consuming process for us and for our customers, so for now, Capterra will do. 

And if you don’t have time to go to the Capterra site, here’s a sample of actual quotes from customers:

Hyper-Reach offered everything we needed at a better price and unlimited messaging.

Great people, wonderful product to work with!

Hyper-Reach software is very easy to implement and use.

Compared to others this is simple to use, can be done from anywhere… 

Customer service is top notch – I’ve never had a question or request not addressed almost immediately. 

One of the best features of this software is it’s user friendly. 

I have not found anything so far that I do not like about this system. 

Hyper-Reach is a great solution for us because it is simple enough for us to use daily, but is capable of expanding as needed during our peak times through the use of ipaws and apps.

We have used Hyper-Reach for almost 10 years and have no intentions of changing. It works, we can afford it and the citizens really like it.

I don’t have any issues with the Hyper-Reach system. It has been great…

Hyper-Reach works every time you need it.

Absolutely wonderful. I highly recommend them to anyone in need of this type of system.

Free Marketing Materials for Your Citizen Signup Campaigns

We’ve been hard at work helping our customers get their residents enrolled in their Hyper-Reach emergency notification system. And these materials are available for your use – even if you’re not a Hyper-Reach customer.

Above is a sample of what we’ve put together in just the last two months: 

All of these materials – and many more – can be easily adapted to your community and agency.  We’ve already turned some of these documents into templates that let you quickly change the logos, community name, agency name and other elements as you require. And we’re working to make all of our materials into easily customizable templates for any agency to use. 

If you’re not using Hyper-Reach today, you might need to make some additional changes. Because Hyper-Reach offers more ways for residents to sign up than other alert providers, some of the content might not apply to you.  For example:

  • Our phone-based sign up process – perfect for older citizens and folks without Internet access – is not offered by most other alert service providers.  
  • Our one-click process that lets residents sign up on their browser is offered by some, but not all mass notification companies. 
  • And only Hyper-Reach offers signing up through Alexa.  So you’ll need to delete text like “just say ‘Alexa, enable Hyper-Reach.’”

But you almost certainly have a web-sign up form. Although we think ours is better, these materials should work fine for your web-based form. Here are some suggestions to make them work even better:

  • Use a QR code or URL shortener like bit.ly to make it easy for residents to find your sign up page.
  • Insist that your vendor provide a web signup form designed to be easy to fill out on a smartphone or tablet. We’ve been careful about this because more than 70% of internet access is on mobile devices. 
  • Ask your vendor to minimize the number of steps that folks have to go through to register. Some of our competitors require account creation first, then filling out a form, then account confirmation, plus multiple invasive questions, etc. So many people don’t actually complete the process. 
  • Try to avoid passwords to set up an account.  Hyper-Reach lets you use your social media account instead of creating a separate username and password. (This also makes it easier to remember how to access your account when you need to make changes.) 

Or you could just switch to Hyper-Reach to take advantage of all the great features we’ve built in to make it easy for residents to sign up!

It’s important to let folks know about your alert service and to give them a reason to sign up.  Which is why we’ve worked with our customers to create ads, flyers, brochures, press releases, signage, billing inserts, social media posts and more to get the word out. 

We’ve also developed a complete marketing plan to help guide the use of all of these materials. 

Although we give customers more attention and service, we’re interested in the safety of all Americans, so we’re glad to offer these materials, even to non-customers.  All you have to do is ask. 

So if your agency wants help in publicizing the alert system, just let us know. You can send us a message at hr_info@hyper-reach.com or fill out the form here

The Uses and Abuses of Mass Notification Systems

We recently saw an alert message from a sheriff announcing that he wasn’t running for re-election.  That’s an unusual use of a community mass notification system, but it isn’t unprecedented.  In October, a county supervisor in upstate NY used the system there to communicate her “good works”.  And we’ve seen other interesting uses for emergency alert systems over the years.

That got us thinking about what kinds of public messages communities send with these kinds of systems. So we reviewed every message we’ve seen over the past two years, focusing on the messages sent to the general public. 

Our database includes the tens of thousands of messages we sent for our customers, as well as thousands of messages sent through all our major competitors. Our sample includes major cities (NY, LA, etc.), rural areas, and everything in between and covers all regions of the US.  

We’ve tried to summarize all of these messages below. Although this summary focuses on warnings, there are often follow up messages that include protective resources (e.g. shelters, evacuation routes) “all-clear” notices, information on recovery or repairs, and related information.  For the sake of brevity, we’ve left out most of that detail. 

While most of the messages we saw follow best practices, it’s worth remembering that every warning message should follow this pattern:

      1. What the hazard is.
      2. The timing and location of the danger (when and where).
      3. What action the reader should take. 

We think these guidelines are useful even when the action is no action. Many messages, for example, were meant to alert residents of unusual situations – e.g. smoke, flyovers, a bomb test – to avoid calls to the 911 center. Most of these messages did not include a statement like “there is no need to call 911,” but our reading of the research suggests that clarity is always better than ambiguity.  So we think you should consider adding that content to your message templates. 

And it’s very important to include specific location information. In too many cases, we saw messages that had little or no location data. Since most messages are text and do not include a map component, it’s difficult for a reader to understand a hazard if they don’t know where it is. That’s especially true for social media messages which can be read by people who may be outside a polygon on a map. 

We also think you should review what your message will look like to the recipient. In the examples below, you’ll see messages that are truncated so that key details are only available by clicking on the link. That’s a bad practice since many residents won’t click on a link without a compelling reason.

It’s not our job to tell you how to use your alert system. But we can at least show you how others are using their systems so you can consider whether those uses are valuable for your residents.

One interesting use of alert systems to consider is when you’re changing alert providers. Several of our newer customers used their old alert system to tell residents they were switching to Hyper-Reach and to send them the link to our signup page and the number we use for telephone signups. We think this is a great way to help make sure the transition to Hyper-Reach goes smoothly and reaches the maximum number of people in your community. 

Alert Messages Types by Category:

Weather – Both Extreme and Potentially Threatening

  • How to prepare for weather, prevent damage (e.g. flooding)
  • Impact of weather: office closures, etc.
  • Resources to deal with weather: e.g. shelter availability, cooling or warming centers
  • Damage reporting requests: e.g. asking for citizen reports of weather damage
  • Added services in response to events, e.g. brush pickup

Other Environmental Hazards

  • Air quality advisories
  • Wildfire
  • Floods
  • Mud/rock slides
  • Explosion hazard
  • Chemical spills

Utility Issues

  • Boil Water, water main breaks, etc.
  • Emergency water availability
  • Gas service issues, including leaks, hazardous situations
  • Electric power issues, e.g. interruptions, resumption of power
  • Energy conservation requests
  • Water conservation requests

Disease and Health-Related Issues

  • Vaccination promotion, advice, reminders
  • Pandemic advice for safety, masking, etc.
  • Pandemic-related reopening notices
  • Other disease-related notices
  • Rabies vaccination clinic availability

Awareness/Avoiding Panic/Pre-empting 911 Calls

  • Smoke, odor awareness
  • Fireworks awareness
  • Bomb, explosion awareness
  • Flyover of military, other aircraft
  • Testing of siren awareness
  • IPAWS test message awareness

Traffic-Related

  • Travel advisory: closed roads, traffic signal problems, other issues
  • Event awareness: e.g. marathons, parades, protests, ect.
  • Parking restrictions
  • Traffic advisory: e.g. speed limit changes, new traffic patterns

Crime/Law Enforcement/Soliciting Assistance

  • Police activity awareness
  • Criminal at large: shelter in place, BOLO
  • Criminal activity, e.g. homicide in area
  • School lock down
  • Active shooter
  • Solicitation for witnesses, crime tips
  • Missing persons, Amber, Silver alerts

Government Service Advisories

  • Government service changes: e.g. garbage, recycling pickup, Christmas tree pickup
  • Office and school closures, opening delays, change in hours
  • 911 usage advice, e.g. things not to call about
  • 911 outage, service issues
  • Emergency sirens not working
  • Police phone out of order, service resumed
  • Park closures due to construction
  • Spay and neuter services

Citizen Participation Invitations and Opportunities

  • Asking for blood donations
  • Soliciting participation in community events, e.g. light contest, kite festival
  • Government agency meetings, e.g. public hearings, citizen workshops, candidate forums
  • Gun buyback program
  • Memorial events, e.g. 9/11, officer funeral service
  • Voting locations and hours

Safety Advisories

  • Burn ban notice, red flag notice
  • Power line down, building collapse, sink hole
  • Rules reminders, e.g. “don’t mix grass clippings with brush to be picked up”
  • Home safety reminders: e.g. dispose of old medicines
  • Swimming advisory: e.g. rip currents
  • Life safety reminders: “children should wear helmets on bikes”, “lock your car”

Other Messages

  • Switching alert services
  • Important message
  • New laws and their impact
  • Tax and utility billing notices
  • Political announcements

Specific Message Examples (Communities Names Selectively Redacted)

  • Signup for HyperReach  by Calling or Texting “Alert” to (740) 669-7798 or the web address: http://hyper-reach.com/ohvintonsignup.html
  • Starting or reopening your small business? Cut red tape in half with NYC Business Quick Start. Call 888-727-4962 or visit nyc.gov/business
  • Our city has an alarming shortage of donated blood. Give blood and help your city. Visit nybc.org or call 1-800-933-2566.
  • This is the Charlotte Mecklenburg police department  please stand by f… https://evb.gg/n#1iuuuue1acb/09aHG0UH or
  • A Friendly Reminder Regarding Grass Clippings: Please do not mix grass clippings with brush piles. The Shrewsbury DPW will not pick u https://rgrp.app/3fmn0qY
  • It’s important to keep our homes safe by cleaning our medicine cabinets and any areas we keep our medicine. Tomorrow, April 24th betwee https://rgrp.app/3xhN25F
  • We need your help in keeping our children safe. Parents, please stress to your children that when they are ridi https://rgrp.app/352ZmJz
  • Sewer Repair Work Planned for next week.  3/7/22 through 3/11/22. nixle.us/DG4NB Reply with a friend’s # to forward
  • Message from Department of Public Works nixle.us/DEHGZ Reply with a friend’s # to forward
  • Residents are encouraged to participate in The City of Manchester’s Holiday Lights Contest! nixle.us/D9ZSZ Reply with a friend’s # to forward
  • ONLY call 9-1-1 for emergencies, not for power outages nixle.us/D8L5R Reply with a friend’s # to forward
  • GUN BUY BACK CASH FOR GUNS EVENT nixle.us/D6X5H Reply with a friend’s # to forward
  • County Sheriff Tom Jones announces he won’t seek re-election nixle.us/DGCTX Reply with a friend’s # to forward

Hyper-Reach Releases Support for Haitian Creole

With our use of Google Translate (which supports 109 languages across the world), Amazon Polly (highly realistic text to speech) and other technologies, Hyper-Reach offers best-in-class language support.

Recently, we developed support for Haitian Creole for a specific customer and are making that available to all Hyper-Reach customers at no additional cost.  So if your community has a large number of Haitian Creole speakers and you want to know more about this new capability, contact your Hyper-Reach sales or support account representative. 

And if you’re looking for a mass notification service that can  support all of your residents, regardless of what language they speak, click here to get a quick demonstration of the Hyper-Reach system. 

Request a Demo

Being Ready For Emergencies On a Tight Budget

People experience disasters in different ways. And there are lots of reasons why.  Poverty is something that both affects people’s ability to prepare for emergencies and the consequences they suffer when an event strikes. 

As a Red Cross spokesman put it in The Atlantic in 2019:

“Disasters, for most communities, exacerbate already existing issues, which is why we often see in shelters what we sometimes refer to as ‘the least, the last, and the lost.’ The people who had the least, who were the last to get services, who were already at the end, who were lost beforehand, especially financially.”

Because we’re in the notification business, we focus on the preparation side of things. So we want to offer ways to prepare that are affordable to as many people as possible.  

Unfortunately, much of the preparedness advice that’s provided by emergency management agencies to the general public fails to take residents’ economic circumstances and capacities into account. One list we saw of emergency supplies, for example, included relatively expensive items like generators, sleeping bags, and even simple things like granola which is much more expensive per cup than other cereals. 

So we’ve gathered some tips for disaster preparation that most folks can afford.  Feel free to include these in the advice you provide for your residents.  (Note: we’ve written this with reliability in mind. It should be readable by about 75% of US adults):

First things first. Think about what you need and prioritize. You can start with an online list of what to have in a disaster supply kit and then focus on what you really need. For example, the Ready.gov website offers this page that starts with water and food (your first priorities) and goes from there.  

Make your supplies play double duty. You don’t need to have emergency supplies that are completely separate from what you use every day.  Having a few days extra food on hand means you’ve got something for dinner that you can also use in an emergency.  Clothing and bedding can be used every day, and still provide what you need when you have to evacuate or hunker down at your house.  The key is to know what you’ll take or use when there’s a disaster. 

Keep it cheap.  

There are many ways you can keep down the cost of emergency supplies.

1. Cheap food that’s good for you.  You might not have fancy meals during an emergency, but there are many foods that will feed you well for pennies a meal:

  • Canned beans
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Canned vegetables

Yes, you want to mostly have shelf-stable foods, but we include frozen vegetables because experts suggest having 3 days’ of food on hand for emergencies. Without electricity, your frozen veggies might be thawed by day 2 or 3, but you can still eat them, even raw, which you can’t do with meats or some other foods.

Compared to chicken nuggets or pizza, they may not taste great, but they’re better than an empty stomach and are often better for you. 

2. Get basic supplies vs. fancy packaging.  Here’s an example.  Instead of a first aid kit that might cost $15 – $30, get a box of store brand band aids in different sizes, a roll of bandages and some alcohol and spend less money. Put it all in a baggie and store it where you can easily find it. Or split it up and use half for everyday use and stash the other half for emergencies. 

3. Look for sales. When sales come up, keep your eyes open for the things you don’t have. Scan the clearance sections of the seasonal items. Camping items go on sale at the end of summer, back packs after back to school, light sticks after Halloween, candles at Christmas, basic household supplies after the New Year. 

4. Do It Yourself. You don’t need to buy bottled water. Wash out used plastic milk and soda bottles and refill them with tap water. 

5. Go to the dollar store. Your local dollar or discount store has basic first aid equipment. Kit staples such as adhesive bandages, gauze, face masks, gloves, cleaning supplies, batteries, flashlights, etc., can all be found at lower prices. These stores are also a good place to find coloring books and crayons, puzzles, toys, books and games to keep kids occupied during a long-term emergency event. 

6. Get it used. Thrift stores, yard sales and Craigslist are great resources for all kinds of things like sleeping bags, lanterns, etc.

7. Get it free. Some states have free resources for emergency kits or training. Call your local emergency management agency or search online to ask about these kinds of resources in your area.  

Sign up for your community’s emergency alerts

Now that you’re more ready for an emergency, you want to know as soon as possible if there’s one coming.  So sign up for emergency alerts to give you time to gather the supplies you need. 

Emergency alerts are usually provided for free by your local government and give you messages by text or voice, so you can get them on any kind of phone. 

Emergency Messaging at Night

After the huge tornado disaster in December, we were surprised to find out that tornadoes at night are roughly 2.5 times more deadly than daytime tornadoes.  And while there are lots of reasons offered for that difference, it seems that no one really knows why nighttime tornadoes kill more people. 

Whatever the cause, a lack of warning did not seem an issue in December.  As the the NYTimes reported: 

 …if anything went wrong before the storms hit, it was more a lack of response to warnings than a lack of information about the dangers. Severe weather warnings began on Thursday and were issued throughout Friday in a host of states. Sirens woke residents in some areas late Friday and early Saturday to warn them that a tornado was near and that they should take shelter away from windows.

Steven Strader of Villanova University put it  this way: “Adequate warning does not always ensure that people will take shelter, can take shelter, or know the quality of their shelter (home)…” 

Since some of the explanations for the higher mortality of nighttime tornadoes might also apply to other emergency situations at night, it got us thinking about the implications for nighttime emergency alerts. The explanations below don’t seem to be specific to tornadoes. They could affect the response to any alerts that are sent out at night.

1. Access to emergency alerts (do not disturb settings).

Most smartphones have “do not disturb” settings that silence notifications except from specific callers.  While we don’t know how prevalent this is, it appears that at least some smartphones will allow users to silence notifications from WEA alerts. 

2. Fatigue and response to emergency alerts.

Although it varies widely, many people are tired at night and fatigue is a known factor in impairing executive function

3. Sleep inertia.

Beyond simple fatigue is a phenomenon known as sleep inertia, which occurs when someone is woken from sleep. Sleep inertia’s symptoms include grogginess, impaired motor dexterity, decreases in cognitive ability and a sense of fatigue.  These symptoms can last 15-60 minutes after waking and even longer for some people, preventing folks from effectively processing the information in emergency alerts.  

4. The impact of alcohol.

About 30% of American adults average at least one drink per night, while 10% average an astonishing 10 drinks per day. Alcohol consumption is not limited to nighttime, of course, but many people don’t start drinking until after the workday.  Since it takes 2 hours to metabolize a single pint of beer, alcohol must be considered an important potential factor in processing emergency alerts. 

5. Darkness as a factor in interpreting nighttime alerts.

Although we couldn’t find any statistics, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence suggesting that people attempt to confirm some alerts at night by simply looking outdoors.  This is cited as one reason for excess tornado fatalities, since the darkness of nighttime makes it difficult to see funnel clouds, etc.  But the same might easily apply to other environmental hazards. 

6. Anxiety, vulnerability and nyctophobia.

Although most people grow out of their childhood fear of the dark, there’s no question that at least some people continue to feel increased levels of fear, anxiety and doubt at nighttime. And when the condition is severe, it’s called “nyctophobia”

7. Inability to get confirmation information.

It’s a well-documented fact that most people attempt to get confirmation of emergency information from multiple sources.  But when the alert comes in the middle of the night, there are fewer sources of such confirmation.  

Of course, tornadoes are not the only emergencies that can happen at night.  Wildfires, chemical leaks, explosions, and earthquakes are just a few of the situations we can think of that might trigger an alert sent at nighttime. 

Given the factors that can affect how messages are processed at night, what should emergency managers do to make nighttime alerts more effective in their communities?

1. Tell people to enable emergency alerts at night.

  • Suggest they check the Do Not Disturb settings on their phone to ensure that they allow Wireless Emergency Alerts.
  • Give them the caller IDs you use for emergency alerts and ask residents to include them on their list of “favorites”

2. Ensure that your messages are clear and compelling.

There are multiple reasons that people might not be able to understand your messages clearly, including fatigue, sleep inertia, and alcohol.  Since the average American reads at the eighth grade level under normal circumstances, you want to aim for something lower than that.  Dumb your message down and make it crystal clear using as simple language as possible.

3. Repeat messages.

People are looking for confirmation information and while you may not be able to put them in contact with their neighbors, “repetition is the mother of learning”.  

4. Set expectations (e.g. you won’t be able to see this coming, etc.)

If it’s applicable, let folks know they won’t be able to see outside and confirm what you’ve told them.  Just be authoritative and tell them what you want them to do. 

5. Provide links to confirming information.

Since people want confirmation, if you have access to another source – for example, something on the web – you can include links to that so they can get some other source that reinforces your message. 

6. Let them know about resources to give a sense of empowerment.

People feel more vulnerable at night, so if you can do it, let them know how they can get additional help or help themselves.  For example, if you’re issuing a “shelter-in-place” message, suggest they gather the items they might need like food, water, etc. in the area they would use for shelter. 

7. Tell them what to do.

More than anything else, be clear about what you want them to do, even when the situation is potentially ambiguous. As the book Emergency Alert and Warning Systems says:

People also want specific language that gives precise and non-ambiguous information about the area(s) at risk, how much time they have to engage in protective actions before impact, and the source of the message…. facts relating to the hazard need to be stated “authoritatively, confidently, and with certainty, even in circumstances in which there is ambiguity…explain that…experts agree on the protective actions people should take.

After reviewing this topic, it seems to us that more research needs to be done in this area, since there are many dangerous incidents that can happen at night and many circumstances that make nighttime emergencies different from daytime ones.  We’ve tried to identify the factors that can affect how your alerts might be received at night and how you can adapt to make them more effective.