Emergency Alerts: Even Success Leaves Room for Improvement

Earlier this month, Tuscaloosa’s emergency notification system failed to send an automated warning message when a tornado was imminent.

While that failure is disturbing, we’re also disturbed by the “success” of an earlier use of the system.  Last January, a call was sent out to all 25,000 people listed in the system.  But there are almost 36,000 households and over 90,000 people in Tuscaloosa.  And of the 25,000 calls, about 9,000 failed.  So only 16,000 people or less than 45% of households got a call.

This kind of failure illustrates how important registration is. Most of the people in the calling list came from telephone company listings, so that’s just the landline phone at home.  So about 16,000 households without a landline number aren’t listed.  In addition, calls to a home phone often go unanswered because no one’s home or the phone is busy.  If everyone registered and included their cell phone, there would be multiple ways to reach folks and everyone would have a chance to be warned.

One reason why folks don’t register is that it’s hard to find the registration page for any given community.  Which is why we’re proud to sponsor the US National Emergency Alert Registry, which helps folks get registered anywhere in the US – even with our competitors.

When Emergency Alerts Fail

For those of you that have been following the weather across the country, you see that tornado season is in full gear. Communities with a history of tornadoes are keeping themselves prepared and on high alert. Emergency alert systems are especially working hard during tornado season to provide the latest and quickest up-to-date information. Unfortunately, these systems are not always successful.

A few weeks ago, Tuscaloosa’s emergency notification system failed to send an automated alert to worn of an impending tornado. Alerting local citizens in a quick and organized manner can save lives, especially during devastating tornadoes. One research paper says a 15 minute warning can reduce injuries and death by as much as 40%.

Local leaders want to keep their citizens safe and an efficient emergency system is important during severe weather.  We’re sure the folks in Tuscaloosa are working with their provider to make sure this failure doesn’t happen again.

We’re fortunate that a failure like this has never happened on the Hyper-Reach system, but we’re always looking for ways to improve, so we’d like to understand what went wrong and make sure it can’t affect us.

Learning How to Tweet From the Boston Marathon Bombing

An interesting paper came our way, which studied the Twitter messages sent after the  Boston Marathon bombing last year.  It’s a bit dry, so here are some highlights if you don’t want to read for yourself. 

They studied over 1,000 messages sent by various authorities and developed an approach to categorizing them.

I’ve quoted some passage below.  But here’s an interesting point:  despite the fact that research has concluded that messages should fit into 4 key groups (warning, provide instructions to reduce damage, get public assistance and increase social cohesion, resilience and confidence in authorities) only 25% of the messages sent actually fit into those groups.

And there was no consistent use of hashtags to make it easy for people to follow and repeat messaging.

Our take on this paper is that emergency management folks should decide IN ADVANCE the kind of messages they need to send under different scenarios and how they want those messages presented, including how to come up with consistent use of hashtags and other methods for insuring that everyone who wants to follow an issue can do so effectively.

Messages that use directive and instructional sentence style, are organized along an identifiable hashtag channel, and include content about the impact of the hazard and protective action guidance will receive considerably more retweets than those that do not (Sutton et al., 2013).

…the leading recommendation stated that a “a primary goal of IED risk communication is to inoculate people against, or counteract, the social and economic messages that terrorists intend to convey” (p 14), which can be accomplished through four key messages: (1) Warn citizens of imminent attack; (2) provide instructions to reduce potential injuries, casualties, and disruption; (3) gain the assistance of citizens in identifying suspicious activities or indicators of terrorist activities; and (4) enhance social cohesion, social resilience, and confidence in authorities (p. 15). These communication strategies, while not unique to risk communication, are novel when they are delivered in real time, via terse messaging channels, over the course of a disaster event.

Pre-event coordination for utilizing social media platforms during future events should not be limited only to who leads, but also to who amplifies messages and who serves in a supporting role. Our findings suggest that messages generated at the local level are amplified at the local level, but also distributed more broadly by State agencies. In contrast, Federal agencies, while not promoting messages from local agencies, offer a supporting role by posting information relevant to the broader public. Such coordination could be included as part of future strategic planning. In addition, pre-planning must include strategies to develop and converge around event specific channels via Twitter hashtags (or other kinds of metadata/tags) in order to coordinate terse messaging across a distributed and remote audience facilitating both searching and dissemination of relevant information.  Such efforts will benefit those who follow a disaster event and serve to validate the effective coordination of public information and response functions.

 

Why Mobile-Friendly Registration is So Critical for Emergency Alert Systems

Most emergency alert services, including Hyper-Reach, provide some kind of registration form for the public to use to sign up.  But most of these are not set up to be mobile-friendly.  So when you access them on a mobile browser, they’re almost impossible to read.  The best exception to this is the registration page for the US National Emergency Alert Registry (www.usnear.org), which we sponsor.

The importance of being mobile-friendly hit us squarely when we read this statistic in an article from mobile expert Tomi Ahonen:

42% will not use a PC and will only access the internet on a mobile phone (smartphone or dumbphone)

This number is probably skewed a bit high for the US (the data is worldwide), since many folks outside the US don’t have Internet access except through a mobile phone.  But 42%?  That’s amazing.

And regardless of whether the US number is 25%, 35% or 40%, it should be clear that a registration page that doesn’t format for mobile browsers is going to miss a lot of people.

Why We Don’t Use an Email Gateway for Text Alerts

Yesterday there were tornadoes and other severe weather throughout the midwest, south and southwest.  But this tweet: “Had an EF2 hit just west of me in Fargo, and our house didn’t get the reverse 911 call until the warning expired” means that at least some people didn’t get the alert in time.

Some emergency alert providers use an email gateway to send their text message alerts.  That’s a mistake.  Many users on the web report delays when using email gateways.  We’ve seen reports of delays of up to 3 days for some messages.  Even the carriers acknowledge the delays.  And some folks claim that many fewer messages get through.

Email to SMS/text is free, which makes it appealing to companies to use this service. But if you need your message to go out quickly and reliably, you need an emergency alert company that uses an SMS aggregator.  Hyper-Reach uses two separate such aggregators so we have redundancy in our network.

Here’s a clue to whether the alert company uses an email gateway: if they ask for the mobile carrier in their registration form, then they probably use an email gateway.  That’s because the email address has to specify the carrier.  Two exceptions to this are our form and the US National Emergency Alert Registry.  In both cases, it’s because we may have to pass the registration information on to another alert provider, and since some of them need the information, we ask it of everyone.

But we want your alerts to go out ASAP, so we NEVER use an email gateway for SMS/text messages.

 

The Value of Simplicity for Emergency Alerts

At Hyper-Reach, we often talk about how simple and easy our emergency alert system is for public safety people to use.

This story from Virginia Beach illustrates an important reason for keeping systems simple.  It seems that the Police Department sent out an emergency notification call to about 100,000 people that was only meant for 175.  And the message  – sent at 2AM – was about a road being re-opened after an accident.  That probably could have waited until folks were awake.

The article says that the public safety folks are reviewing training and policy, which is good.  We’d just make the point that training is easier when the system is easier to learn.

We proudly use Google Maps as the major component of our geographic selection process.  We do this because Google is a master at keeping things simple and accessible to as many people as possible and because most people are familiar with Google.  (It doesn’t hurt that Google invests an enormous amount of money into their database for Maps.)

We also allow clients to set time parameters for “normal” messages and then require that a message be marked “urgent” to be sent outside of those time settings.  This means that the default time for a message to go out can be set to be normal daylight hours and someone would need to deliberately choose to send a message at 2AM.

We put a lot of work into keeping the Hyper-Reach system easy to use, sometimes delaying the development of new features until we can come up with a design that doesn’t make the system too busy or difficult to learn.    We think that’s as important as having the latest features, because a system that’s too complex is also likely to make it difficult and unlikely for folks to actually use a feature.

So simplicity has many virtues.  It minimizes training time and cost, it improves the speed with which an emergency alert gets sent out, and it helps avoid mistakes.

So, if your emergency alert system is too complicated, give us a call at 1-855-2Notify (855-266-8439).

Hyper-Reach Initiative Ready To Go

We’ve finished developing an alert service for events, such as marathons, walkathons, jamborees, etc.  So, if you’re an organizer of such an event, we’re ready for you.

We’ve written a program guide explaining the parameters.  Click here to review.

Check it out.  If your organization does a big public event – especially one that involves lots of people from outside your community – it may be a good fit for you.

 

Infected Pizza Story Inspires Verse

There’s a story in today’s paper about a restaurant worker who may have infected some of the people he served.  We think this is a good use for emergency alerts, so it inspired this verse:

A guy making pizza got hepatitis

Now public health folks are having gastritis

2400 pizzas could have been infected

That’s thousands of people who should be protected

Before you start looking both yellow and green

You need to get in here and get our vaccine

When food’s gotten germy someone’s going to get hurt

It makes no difference if entrée or dessert

Before food gets you sick, you need an alert

Wireless Emergency Alerts make Major Crimes

On what I think was the season finale of Major Crimes, there’s a scene where the police send out an Amber Alert and suddenly every cell phone in the area lights up with an alert on a missing kid who happens to be with the suspect the police are chasing.

If you want to see the clip, it’s Season 2, episode 19:  Return to Sender, Part 2. You’ll have to go to one of the cable channels to get it, though.  It doesn’t seem to be posted on the TNT website.

It’s a great illustration of the power of Wireless Emergency Alerts.

Emergency Alert Services – Small Communities Pay More

At this point, we’ve collected almost 500 price points showing what cities and counties around the US are paying for their emergency alert services.

Recently we decided to analyze this data by the size of the community involved.   The results are pretty dramatic.  Smaller communities – those with less than 2,000 population, pay more than 10 times per person as those at the largest end, with 100,000 or more people.  While this is simplistic analysis (we didn’t control for vendor or the nature of the services, for example), we’re pretty sure the conclusion is true, even if the proportions might be different with finer tuning.  After all, smaller communities are often the least able to pay – proportionately fewer of them even contract for such services.

We realize that there are economies of scale in setting up emergency alert services, but 10 times seems excessive.  It seems like one or more of the many emergency alert vendors (maybe Hyper-Reach) should find a way to set up smaller communities more efficiently and put this situation into more balance.

 

Population Cost/Pop
0-2,000  $      2.39
2,001-10,000  $      0.90
10,001-20,000  $      0.61
20,001-50,000  $      0.44
50,000-100,000  $      0.29
100,000+  $      0.17