Best Practices in Wireless Emergency Alerts – II

In part two of our series summarizing “Best Practices in Wireless Emergency Alerts”, we’ll tackle the topic of how the audience for WEA’s is selected. Many times an emergency will not affect an entire county, so how does public safety decide who receives Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA)?

Wireless Emergency Alert standards do not require the alerting authority to send out alerts to an area smaller than a county. Even though a citizen may live miles away from the emergency taking place, they could still get an alert. Some emergency alert vendors, including Hyper-Reach, provide map-based geo-targeting so that alerts can easily be sent only to cell towers  in the affected area. Counties that don’t use geo-targeting will send alerts to the entire county.

Even when the software provider can support map-based geo-targeting, the method that mobile telecom carriers use to select the towers can result in over-selecting the people getting the alert.  We’ll explain that more in a later post.

When people receive too many alerts that don’t pertain to them, they can become desensitized to them, a term called “alert fatigue”. This can be dangerous as they might ignore an important alert later on.

The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) Open Platform for Emergency Networks (OPEN) creates an alert using a combination of phrases generated from the information put into the system by local alerting authorities. These messages cannot be modified. To try to avoid alert fatigue, some alerting authorities can change the WEA using a Commercial Mobile Alert Authority text (CMAMtext). In theory, state authorities have granted certain public safety officials the option of sending a CMAMtext, a customizable 90-character message.  In reality, according to a recent FEMA IPAWS webinar we attended, all alert authorities can send CMAMtext message.

In effect, a CMAMtext message can be thought of as free-form text.

While a standard IPAWS-OPEN alert may read:

FLOOD WARNING

Until 6:23 pm

Evacuate now

A CMAMtext message could be more specific:

FLOOD WARNING

Until 6:23 pm

Evacuate S Main St now

Although the entire county may receive the alert, it is clear that residents of South Main Street should respond.

Another example of a standard IPAWS-OPEN message is:

FIRE WARNING

In this area

Until 1:05 am

Evacuate now

A CMAMtext could read:

FIRE WARNING

in Zip 01375

Until 1:05 am

Evacuate now

CMAMtext can also be used to change the language of the alert, if a large percentage of the county is comprised of non-English speakers.

Emergency management agencies work hard to make sure their messages are clear, effective and relevant to the people who are receiving them. While geo-targeting is useful to avoid alert fatigue, using CMAMtext to be more specific is a good practice. We’d love to hear what you think.

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