Going Beyond Automated Weather Alerts

This article on new flood monitoring technology caught our eye for many reasons. It’s about cities in Virginia which are working on a system of water level and related monitors that are meant to provide an advanced warning system for flooding risk. The project – called StormSense – is part of a bigger project to develop new technologies that make cities more resilient and secure. Because of the many awards the StormSense project has received, we think it has strong possibilities for expansion beyond coastal Virginia.

There are a number of implications for emergency notification systems that we think are worth talking about:

  1. Although the alerts generated by this system are only going to emergency managers for now, this system may eventually be available for automated alerts, in much the same way that Hyper-Reach monitors National Weather Service warnings and sends out automated alerts to the affected areas. So, as this technology develops and spreads, we could have new inputs to more accurately warn citizens of hazards that may affect them.
  2. This technology leverages the Amazon cloud, and we think that’s important, since we’ve moved much of our infrastructure to AWS’ platform. As we’ve talked about before, there are enormous scalability, reliability and cost advantages to using the cloud for computing and communication technologies of all kinds. Which is why we’re moving much of Hyper-Reach to cloud computing platforms.
  3. While this technology is specifically about floods, there are many more potential sources of automated inputs to emergency notification systems. For example, there was this story the other day about sensors that can recognize the sound of gunfire, determine its location and even the caliber of the weapon and lock down a school. Although the article didn’t mention emergency alerts, that’s an obvious potential application. As artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IOT) expands, we can expect to see many more opportunities to generate alerts to warn the public that require little or no human intervention. It may sound like science fiction now, but in 10 or 20 years these ideas may seem commonplace.

As these – and related – technologies develop, you can count on Hyper-Reach to keep an eye out for their availability and usefulness for emergency notification purposes. After all, we were one of the first to offer automated weather alerts.

Best Practices in Emergency Notification: Missing Person Alerts

Every second counts when a vulnerable person is missing and any information that can help the investigation is potentially invaluable. So getting the word out about a missing person can be vitally important.

Using data from 2016, there were over 88,000 missing person cases in the United States, with almost 40% of those being children under the age of 18.

Fortunately, modern Emergency Notification Systems (ENS) allow law enforcement agencies to use multiple communication methods – including social media – to greatly increase the chances of locating a missing person. There are many examples of residents’ quick response to alert messages helping find a missing person within a few hours.

To get the maximum benefit from an emergency alert system, consider these recommendations when sending out the missing person alert:

  1. Get as many citizens enrolled in the ENS as possible. While this counts mostly BEFORE you send out a message, you can also use the current emergency to give citizens a reason to sign up. Let your community know there’s an Emergency Notification System in place and that it will be used for emergency situations. Your current emergency is a good example of how the ENS system will be used. Add a message telling folks to sign up as part of your messaging about the emergency.
  2. Your message should be brief but impactful. Provide accurate physical characteristics and some valuable details that can help locate a missing person (for example, the last place a missing person was seen). Also, add a link for more information and make sure to include a contact number where citizens can call in case they have information to report. A good Emergency Notification System such as Hyper-Reach also allows you to attach the picture of a missing person to help to find them even faster.
  3. Send a missing person alert message via multiple channels including social media and WEA, when appropriate. This will help to fill in the gaps in contact lists since landlines are only present in 40%-50% of households. You can use Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA, part of IPAWS) when there is significant risk to life.  (Note that Amber Alerts will typically be sent by WEA). Also, get help from a local media to spread the word.
  4. Avoid sending out a missing person alert during late night hours. Experience shows that citizens will be irritated if you wake them up with a missing person alert in the middle of the night. And the odds of getting help from the general public at 3 AM are pretty slim. If you have to send an alert in the middle of the night, make the distribution of that alert as small as possible (Hyper-Reach allows you to limit your distribution to areas as small as individual street segments or even a set of specific addresses). Then send out a broader alert to arrive first thing in the morning.  Modern systems – including Hyper-Reach – have the ability to schedule a message to be sent on a specific date and time.

Emergency notification systems have proven to be a powerful tool for locating missing persons. Thanks to the different communication methods that can be accessed at one time, ENS use significantly increases the chances of finding a missing person. We hope that our recommendations will help you to use your emergency notification system more fully and effectively. And if you do not yet have such a system, we would be glad to show you the benefits of adding ENS to your emergency response toolkit.

Request a Demo

Why Cloud Deployment Levels the Playing Field for Mass Emergency Notification

The days of paying too much for emergency notification are at an end.  And the reason is simple: the cloud.

Many emergency managers and others who buy emergency notification systems (ENS) are under the impression that the size of the ENS company is important.  There’s a logic to that position that seems to make sense.  After all, a bigger company can send out more messages in a shorter period of time, right?

Wrong.  While that logic may have worked 10 years ago, it’s way out of date today.  And the reason is simple: the cloud.

By “the cloud”, we mean cloud computing companies, such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft and others.  These companies are now providing massive computing power that is very inexpensive, highly reliable, easily scaled to near-infinite capacity, amazingly flexible and highly interconnected with telecom and internet service providers.

Consider this: the largest ENS provider has a total annual revenue of just over $100 million dollars, while Google alone invested over $30 billion dollars on cloud computing technology in just one year.  And Google is playing catch-up to Amazon.

And all that investment isn’t just for hardware.  Much of it goes to software that automates the failover, security and configuration processes that allow its customers to rely on its highly reliable services.  Amazon boasts over 30 security certifications and offers a super-secure version of its AWS services that’s good enough for the Pentagon.  And in this area, it’s probably playing catch-up to Microsoft.

In fact, one of the great aspects of the cloud computing business for us, and many other IT companies, is the aggressive competition among them, because it means that their services are constantly improving while their prices actually go down.

The implications for emergency notification services are profound.  While Hyper-Reach is a relatively small provider of ENS services, we can actually scale to exactly the same capacity as our very largest competitors.  With the same, or better, reliability.  And the same, or better, security. (More on these points later.)

So before you agree to pay a premium of 30%, 40%, 50% or more for the supposed security of a larger company, look for ENS companies that leverage the power of cloud computing in delivering their services.  (The same logic, BTW, applies to other technologies.) We think you’ll be amazed at how much value you can get – not to mention personal service – while paying less for your ENS system.

Why Giving Citizens Lots of Choices is a Bad Strategy for Citizen Signups

Every major provider of mass Emergency Notification Systems offers some kind of web-based registration or signup form.  Some of them are very good and others, frankly, are terrible.

Rather than go through all the reasons why some forms are not good at getting people to sign up, this article focuses on one: too many choices. Many forms ask people to make too many decisions, resulting in them never completing the form at all.  

Consider the following from a variety of expert sources:

Sid Bharath, Business Writer:

“When more choice is offered to a consumer, the decision-making takes longer and requires more energy, eventually driving them to the safest option, [which is making no decision]….  Instead, try making it a bit easier for them. Give them fewer choices and fewer options and see if it increases your conversion rates and sales.”

The Economist:

Too many options means too much effort to make a sensible decision: better to bury your head under a pillow, or have somebody else pick for you…. As the French saying has it: “Trop de choix tue le choix” (too much choice kills the choice).”

Nicholas Cardot, Web Marketing Consultant:

“Increasingly the scientific/academic community, as well as the marketing world, have been churning out studies that prove emphatically that more options always leads to fewer actions. And conversely, fewer options always lead to more actions being taken. “

Now, you may think that asking people to register for emergency alerts is not selling anything.  But actually, it is. You are selling the opportunity to be notified in an emergency and the price you’re charging is the time and effort the citizen needs to make in order to fill out the form.

Sophisticated marketers have tools that let them measure completion rates (how many people complete a form as a percentage of visitors to the page) and other results.  They use technology to see where people get confused and at what point they stop filling out a form or complete a process.  

We do that too. And we’re going to tell you that asking citizens to decide if they want information about trash pickup, weather advisories, community events, etc. is a bad idea if what you really want is to get citizens signed up for emergency alerts.

And here’s another thing: it’s not necessary to ask all these questions when you get citizens signed up.  If instead, you focus on getting them registered for emergency alerts, and then, later, you ask them for the other information, you can have your cake and eat it too.  

So here is our suggestion to get the maximum number of signups for your emergency alert system. Make the initial registration process as simple as possible for your citizens. Then, if you want, after they’ve enrolled, you can request more information.  

Best Practices in Emergency Notification: “Should I send this message?”

There’s no doubt about using your Emergency Notification System (ENS) when there is an imminent threat to life or property. But what about alerts that are not really emergencies? Is it appropriate to use ENS for non-urgent notifications or to disburse general information?

Based on various sources we’ve researched, and including our own conversations and experience with Hyper-Reach clients, most users nationwide utilize their Emergency Notification Systems strictly for emergency situations.  But there are others that use their ENS for both emergency and non-emergency situations. So there are at least two schools of thought on this issue.

Even though there are a significant number of ENS users that are comfortable with sending non-emergency messages, we recommend that emergency managers take into account the potential pitfalls of using their ENS for non-emergency purposes. Flooding your citizens with information they perceive to be unimportant may annoy them, make them less likely to pay attention to future alerts, and worse yet, may lead them to unsubscribe altogether.

We don’t recommend using an ENS to notify the public about everything that happens in your community, such as the Fireman’s Carnival taking place next weekend, or to remind people to put out their trash or to read their water meters. But if you’ve got the blizzard of the century coming in and need folks to get their cars off the street for snow removal, that might be a perfect occasion to notify the public.

And even though we think ENS should be mostly used for notifying the public about emergencies and severe weather alerts, it can make sense to use an ENS for sending highly relevant non-emergency messages to prevent a dangerous situation from developing, such as notifying the public about unexpected road closures.   

And although it’s called an Emergency Notification System, many such systems can be used for non-emergency messages that won’t create citizen anxiety.  For example, Hyper-Reach allows you to post information (including images) quickly and easily to multiple Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as to your web site(s), email accounts and other outlets without sending voice or text messages.  And because one message can be sent to all these outlets simultaneously through our single interface, you might find it an easy way to send non-emergency messages.

If you do decide to use your Emergency Notification System to send non-emergency messages, we encourage you to consider these guidelines:

  • Let your community know in advance that you might use ENS for non-emergency messages from time to time, especially if you’re going to use the voice and text messaging;
  • Give citizens a very limited choice about the type of messages they will receive.  (Why very limited?  Because lots of choices will reduce your signup rate and undermine the whole purpose of your ENS.  We’ll discuss that in a later post.)
  • Think about whether or not the urgency of the notification warrants sending phone and text messages;
  • Limit the frequency of non-urgent messages;
  • Make sure these messages are highly relevant and important;
  • Consider whether traditional media and/or social media outlets might be sufficient to notify the public if it’s not an emergency.

So what do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please click here to take our quick survey.

Request a Demo

Let’s Get More Jurisdictions on IPAWS

In our last post, we noted the small percentage of local governments that have access to IPAWS. Nationally about 25% of county level alerting authorities and less than 1% of municipal authorities are approved to use IPAWS.

While there is still room for improvement at the county level, let’s look at the data to see if there’s anything that explains why so few municipalities have access to IPAWS:

  • There are 27 states where less than a quarter of county authorities are approved to use IPAWS;
  • Only 8 states (WY, WV, AZ, MN, IA, NY, CA, MD) have more than half of their counties with emergency response organizations authorized to use IPAWS;
  • In 25 states, less than 1% of municipality authorities are certified to use it;
  • And only 2 states, NV and VA, have more than 5% of municipalities with IPAWS alerting authority. See the full list here.

Top 10 states with the highest local IPAWS certification rate (county and municipal levels)

State County Alerting Authorities Total Counties % Authorized State Municipal Alerting Authorities Total Municipalities % Authorized
WY 22 23 95.7% NV 2 19 10.5%
WV 44 55 80.0% VA 12 229 5.2%
AZ 11 15 73.3% CA 15 482 3.1%
MN 60 87 69.0% NM 3 103 2.9%
IA 61 99 61.6% CO 5 271 1.8%
NY 35 57 61.4% MT 2 129 1.6%
CA 31 57 54.4% WV 3 232 1.3%
MD 12 23 52.2% WA 3 281 1.1%
WA 17 39 43.6% NH 2 234 0.9%
LA 26 60 43.3% OR 2 241 0.8%

(data current as of Nov. 2017)

The diversity of IPAWS authority ranges from cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, but also Tehachapi, CA, population 12,500. In Montana, Helena is an IPAWS Alerting Authority, but so is Havre, with less than 10,000 people. Meanwhile Billings, Missoula and Great Falls – the three largest cities in MT, are not using IPAWS.

An obvious potential explanation for this situation could be the way emergency management is organized in different states. For example, in Nevada and Virginia, each municipality and county has its own Emergency Manager (usually the Fire Chief or Deputy Fire Chief), while in states with smaller local populations such as Wyoming and West Virginia, emergency response is usually coordinated at the county level.

Also, some of the smallest states such as NH, DE, VT, RI, and CT use a statewide ENS and currently only state level authorities are approved to use IPAWS in these states.

For local governments, other factors could be:

  • They don’t see emergency notification as a municipal responsibility;
  • They rely on alternative methods such as sirens, radio/TV alerts and social media;
  • Lack of funds. Since many local municipalities are small and have limited resources they may choose to piggy-back on their county’s Emergency Management;
  • Geographic area concerns. Although this issue is being addressed by the FCC, it’s potentially the case that IPAWS WEA messages may reach too many or too few of the intended audience.

While not using IPAWS allows municipal authorities to save money, on the downside, they will have less control over the notification process. In addition, it can take more time to get the county to send out alerts on their behalf during critical situations when seconds count.

We do hope that more counties and cities will consider pursuing IPAWS certification soon and benefit from this evolving and improving technology.

Here’s also a 5-minute FEMA overview of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS):

https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/videos/77356#

 

A Closer Look at IPAWS

Based on recent data, less than 25% of local jurisdictions are currently certified with FEMA as Alerting Authorities authorized to use the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS). https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/117152.

Percentage of Local Alerting Authorities approved to use IPAWS

Authority Level IPAWS Alerting Authorities Total Jurisdictions %
County 753 3,031 24.8%
Municipal 104 34,376 0.3%

Alerting Authorities with IPAWS certification by organization type

State County Municipal Tribal Military University/School
77 753 104 4 16 5

Although every state has IPAWS authority (and some have multiple agencies with authority), local governments are not making much use of IPAWS.  And that’s unfortunate, in our opinion.

We don’t know all the reasons why so many local governments aren’t using IPAWS, but here are some possible factors, with particular focus on WEA (Wireless Emergency Alert) messages that go to cell phones:

  1. IPAWS targeting is not precise enough.  There are still many counties where at least some of the mobile carriers will broadcast a WEA message across the entire county. And others where even the selected area may be too broad for the purposes of the alert;
  2. Limited message length.  At 90 characters, IPAWS WEA messages don’t carry a lot of content.  So perhaps potential users don’t think it’s so valuable;
  3. Restrictive usage rules. Since IPAWS WEA messages can only be used when there’s a likely or higher risk of imminent death or property loss, potential users might think they can’t use IPAWS, even in cases where they really can.
  4. Cost.  While IPAWS itself is free, you need software to access it, and that usually has a cost.  But lots of counties and cities have some kind of emergency notification system, such as Hyper-Reach, and almost all of those companies offer IPAWS software.
  5. Adoption curve.  It takes time for people to change.  And while Hyper-Reach was quick to jump on the use of IPAWS, not every emergency notification company was, so maybe it’s just a matter of time.

Why is having IPAWS at the local level so important?

  • Having their own access to IPAWS gives local authorities the ability to send alerts immediately without having to go through other channels. So they can get critical information out to the public faster and save more lives.
  • Since more than 95% of people have a mobile phone, IPAWS WEA can fill in the gaps to reach residents and visitors in an affected area who haven’t registered for emergency alerts.
  • As new functionality and better targeting becomes a reality, IPAWS WEA will become an even more effective tool for notifying citizens in case of an imminent threat, both from a delivery perspective and with enhanced content adding impact for better results.

We think that more counties and cities should be using IPAWS.  And we can help.

If you want to find out more about IPAWS and how it integrates with an Emergency Mass Notification System, we would be happy to explain it in greater detail and show you how it all works.

Request a Demo

Targeting WEA Messages – FCC Improvements Coming

Recently, Wired magazine wrote an interesting article that discusses the battle between the FCC and wireless carriers over various features (GPS-enabled location tracking, media, and links) that might be implemented as part of FEMA’s IPAWS Wireless Emergency Alerts.

While the FCC and some public safety officials see personalized location tracking as an opportunity to more accurately and precisely inform the public in case of a serious emergency, others raise concerns regarding citizens’ rights to privacy. And wireless carriers have concerns regarding implementation as well as the privacy concerns of their customers and the potential impact to their bottom line.

The FCC also wants to require multimedia content (e.g. images and links) to be embedded in wireless emergency alerts and has passed a rule requiring the inclusion of links and other references in WEA messages. According to the FCC and emergency responders, these changes help to make alerts more informative and effective. Wireless carriers, however, object that adding media to alerts could result in network congestion due to larger message sizes and adding links may also flood their networks as large numbers of people download a lot of data at once.

Mass Emergency Notification systems such as Hyper-Reach typically send messages to local residents via landlines and other communication methods, which a resident could choose during a registration process.  But landlines are only present in 40%-50% of households and less than 10% of residents will typically use a registration process, so there are gaps.  Since IPAWS WEA alerts can reach almost all cell phones and more than 95% of people have a mobile phone, IPAWS WEA can fill in the gaps to reach residents and visitors in an affected area who haven’t registered.  And soon the links you include in your public notifications will be included with your IPAWS alerts as well.

Hyper-Reach already includes the ability to attach images or links to texts, emails, social media messages and even voice messages.  Some other mass emergency alert systems also support media in messages.  So as new FCC rules go into effect, you’ll be able to include links and other references very soon and image, eventually, into all the message types you wish.  (Assuming you use Hyper-Reach or another system that provides similar support.)

On a more somber note, less than 25% of our local jurisdictions are currently certified with FEMA for authorization to use this valuable tool.  Stay tuned for more on that topic in our next post!

Increasing Community Enrollment for Emergency Alerts

Getting a Mass Emergency Notification (aka Emergency Alert) System is a great way to keep your community informed and safe when an emergency occurs. However, without having your citizens signed up for emergency alerts your chances to reach out to them will be greatly diminished. Even if you use a landline database for making telephone calls, it will have huge gaps, because most people use only their cell phones nowadays.

That’s why a powerful and compelling registration campaign is critical for a successful public notification program. It will get more citizens registered for alerts and increase your notification reach and community preparedness. In our experience, folks often do not know that there’s a notification system or that they can sign up to receive emergency notifications. And in most cases, the community enrollment link for the web-based form is hard to find.

Here are some communication steps that will help you get the word out about your Emergency Notification System:

1. Use multiple communication channels:

  • Add a Sign-up button on your county/city website. Make sure it’s noticeable and easy to find. It’s  preferable to place it on the main page and the pages that are most commonly visited by your citizens.
  • Publish some press-releases in local news sources about the ENS and how community members can sign up for alerts. Cross-post it on your Facebook and Twitter news feeds.
  • Distribute informative leaflets to your citizens during public events, such as city festivals, fairs, marathons to remind them to register for emergency alerts.
  • Include a registration form with a QR-code linked to the web form on utility bills, or send a postcard.

Check out the tri-fold and postcard we did recently for our clients in Cayuga County, NY and Iredell County, NC:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Publish and share stories about successful use of the ENS. For example, our recent story about Phillip Roar, a 39-year old Kentucky state inmate who decided to escape the work crew he was on. Thanks to the timely use of the Hyper-Reach integrated emergency notification system, he was captured the next day and returned to custody: http://www.hyper-reach.com/escape-convict-situation-shows-the-power-of-integrated-emergency-notification-services/

3. Run thematic Sign-Up campaigns. For example, we held a Mother’s Day Sign-Up campaign for our clients last year. We used Mother’s Day as an occasion to remind citizens to register for emergency alerts and asked moms from Burke County, NC (a Hyper-Reach client) to help us to encourage their communities to sign up. The posts were published on Facebook pages of our clients.

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re an existing Hyper-Reach client and want to try a campaign like these, just let your Hyper-Reach sales or service representative know.  We’ll be glad to help!

We hope these suggestions will help you increase your community’s enrollment in your Emergency Notification System.

If you do not have such a system and would like to learn more, please Request A Demo and we’ll show you how it all works!

 

How the rapid decline of landline phones affects emergency alerts via the 911 database

As time keeps moving forward, landline phones are rapidly losing their relevance in the United States. According to 10 years of CDC surveys, the percentage of households with landlines goes down about 4% each year. If that trend continues, less than 10% of people will have a landline at home by 2027. Which means landline phones are rapidly becoming technological relics.

As an emergency notification service provider, we pay close attention to these trends. But even we were surprised when one of our customers told us this week that the number of listings in their 911 database went down by 15% this year – so much faster than the national average.

It’s certainly possible that this trend will accelerate. So if you don’t get your citizens’ cell phones registered for emergency alerts, you won’t be able to reach them quickly and effectively in the future.

And recent news stories about the wildfires in California have noted how few people are getting warned by emergency alert systems, because so few people are registered.

https://www.ems1.com/communications-dispatch/articles/334348048-Officials-Calif-widlfires-expose-emergency-alert-weakness/

Fortunately, we’re working on many different ways to get the public signed up for emergency alerts. And we’re willing to share those with you – even if you’re not a Hyper-Reach customer.

Request a Demo