Best Practices in Emergency Notification: Severe Weather Alerts

Recent discussions around last year’s California wildfires caught our attention. (http://www.govtech.com/em/disaster/-Wildfires-Emphasize-Need-to-Improve-Emergency-Alert-Systems.html)

Back in October, the decision of local authorities not to send out a warning message using the IPAWS Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) may have cost many lives. Some local officials think that a statewide standard for severe weather alerts, similar to that for for Amber Alerts, could have solved the problem.

Although statewide guidance might be helpful, we think that local authorities may not want to wait for their state and might choose, instead, to develop their own local standards. Most severe weather emergencies are local and can even differ from one county to another. Local standards could help emergency responders to react faster by reducing the hesitation level – one of the delay factors in issuing a warning.

Below we highlight some recommendations that can help you to be more prepared when a severe weather emergency strikes:

  • Identify weather hazards that are most common for your area and create a response protocol for each of them.
  • Cooperate with neighboring counties and cities on creating the same standards for similar weather hazards. This will ease the coordination between affected territories when an emergency hits.
  • Identify triggers and set clear requirements – when exactly an emergency alert should be sent to residents. It might also be useful to classify weather emergencies by hazard level.
  • Determine people who would be responsible for sending out weather emergency alerts and make sure to organize training for them.
  • Create a detailed communication plan:
    • Identify what communication channels might be down during common weather emergencies and what channels are preferable to use. The more channels you use the better.
    • Create message templates for each of possible severe weather situation in your area. Pay particular attention to the message content.

According to Dr. Mileti, Professor Emeritus at the University of Colorado Boulder, successful warning message should include these elements (https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/videos/159069):

· Source
· Hazard
· Location Personalization
· Consequences
· Protective Action
· How action reduces Consequences
· Expiration Time

Here’s an example of such a message:

While this is a great example of such a notification, WEA messages are still  limited to 90 characters (a change to 360 characters has been adopted by the FCC but is not in effect yet.) So you can’t such a long message yet.

Here’s an example of approximating the same message across within the current 90 character limit:

Elm Cty Sheriff:Creek flooding from Maple-Hwy110,

Wood City.Drowning risk! Get out by 6PM!

While it’s less detailed, it still includes the most important information like source, hazard location and type, protective action to be taken and how quickly residents need to act.

Alternatively, we’ve recommended using two 90-character messages when the need is great.  So here’s that:

Elm Cty Sheriff: Elm Creek flooding 25+ ft,

both sides from Maple-Hwy 110 in Wood City.

Elm Cty Sheriff (ctd): Move 2+ blocks out by 6PM

or you will drown. Msg expires 11PM.

  • Predefine residents that might be at risk and create sending lists in advance. You can always adjust them.
  • Plan for upcoming changes to WEA messages so you’re ready to modify the protocols to take advantage of those.

Sonoma County local officials stated that the reason why Sonoma County decided not to send out emergency alerts in October was because their notification system can cover too wide area and they thought that sending alerts to every available cell phone in a county – rather than just those in a targeted evacuation zone – could cause unnecessary panic (http://www.govtech.com/em/disaster/-Wildfires-Emphasize-Need-to-Improve-Emergency-Alert-Systems.html).  Although that’s a valid concern, what the research suggests is that a broadcast WEA alert – especially with the “location personalization” described above, can be an important part of the process of getting people to act.

Because the FCC has changed the rules around WEA messages, you’ll be able to take advantage of these improvements within the next year or two:

  • 360 character messages that will allow for much more information;
  • A hyper-link that lets citizens click over to a webpage or map with more information;
  • Better targeting of messages – with requirements by the FCC that mobile carriers can subdivide their towers’ broadcast areas into more specific sub-sections.

Because of the changing nature of the mass notification landscape, you may have to revise your protocols over time. And if you start the process by creating a set of protocols you can use today, you’ll have a headstart on new technology as it becomes available.

Want to implement IPAWS for your community?  Contact us today. We can help you get started.

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