Unfortunate Press about NWS Weather Predictions

We’re not taking a position on whether the NWS did the right or wrong thing in its weather forecasting for northeastern cities early this week.  But we are sad to see its credibility damaged.

Among others, the Drudge Report, NY Post and even CBS News are running a story that suggests that the NWS “knowingly misled the public” in forecasting more snow than both actually happened and – more importantly – their models showed as likely as the storm got closer.

As CBS News reported:  “But that day, some of the agency’s models were already changing. It appeared crippling amounts of snow could miss large cities like New York and Philadelphia. However, the weather service didn’t downgrade its forecasts until early Tuesday morning, when the storm was already underway.”

The attack on the NWS – and beyond – was swift.  The NY Post declared that “meteorologists don’t trust the public to decide for itself” and Drudge tweeted: “”Overreaction by govts, bad forecasting…very troubling trend!!”  And a news blog called the Gothamist wrote: “…the National Weather Service deliberately lied to you because they thought you were too stupid to deal with a slightly more reasonable forecast.”   Drudge reportedly also used the occasion to slam “climate hysterics”.  And even the Washington Post accused the weather service of making a bad judgment call.

Since we provide automated weather alerts to our emergency notification clients as part of our standard offering, it’s disheartening to see the NWS take a PR hit like this.  From experience, we know that automated alerts can help people protect themselves from tornadoes flash floods and other imminent disasters and we’d hate to see someone fail to act because the credibility of the NWS was in questions.

Oroville Dam Points to Much Bigger Problem

The recent evacuation of almost 200,000 folks in Butte, Yuba and Sutter Counties in California because of the risks to the Oroville Dam there highlights a huge potential problem in the US.

According to the National Inventory of Dams, there are over 27,000 dams in the US rated as having either high or significant damage potential.  And most dams are more than 50 years old.

In California, more than 100 dams are listed as being in fair or poor condition.  And according to the National Inventory of Dams, almost 100 dams in California have never been inspected.

In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers rated US dams with a grade of “D”.  A new report is due out in early March.  Will it show any better grade four years later?

Emergency notification systems are a critical tool in getting the word out on evacuation orders.  So if you live downstream from a dam – any dam – it’s time to sign up for emergency alerts!


Can You Tell The Difference?

We’ve been using Google Translate for our automated translation feature for more than a year now.  While it’s always been OK, recently, it’s gotten much, much better.  If you want to understand why, you can read this great NYTimes article on the subject.  Or you can just look at the example below, which came from an actual emergency alert.

Original Spanish

“Este es un mensaje importante de la oficina del sheriff. Se buscan a dos hombres blancos, uno de ellos está calvo, que fueron vistos por última vez en Upper Hollow Road. Estos hombres están actualmente siendo buscados por las fuerzas de la ley por robo. Por favor, mantenga sus vehículos seguros quitando la llave y bloqueándolos. Si ve algo sospechoso llame al 9 1 1.”

English Option 1

“This is an important message from the sheriff’s department. Be on the look out for two white males, one of which is bald headed, last seen on Upper Hollow Road. These men are currently being pursued by law enforcement for theft. Please secure your vehicles by removing the keys and locking them. If you see anything suspicious call 9 1 1.”

English Option 2

“This is an important message from the sheriff’s office. They look for two white men, one of them is bald, who were last seen on Upper Hollow Road. These men are currently being sought by law enforcement for theft. Please keep your vehicles safe by removing the key and locking them. If you see something suspicious call 9 1 1.”

To make it easy for you to compare, we used a Spanish message and showed you two English translations.  One comes from a human and the other from Google Translate.  You can probably guess the Google one, but not by much.  And both of them are probably just as effective at getting your citizens to understand what to do.

To find out more, give us a call at 877-2-Notify or send a note to r_bell@ashergroup.com.

2AM Flash Flood Warning and a Reminder of Why

Last night around 2, my phone – along with thousands of others – sounded an alarm and displayed a Wireless Emergency Alert for flash flooding in Buncombe county, NC.  We are well out of the flood plain, so I decided to get back to sleep.  That took awhile, so the interruption was not welcome.

This morning I was reminded about the importance of such warnings.  One of our news monitoring tools showed a recently published academic paper that discussed the results of flash flooding in Russia in 2012.   Over 5,000 homes were lost and 172 people died.  The paper traced many of the deaths to the lack of an effective emergency notification system to get people evacuated in time.  Of course, we’ve had our own huge flooding here in the U.S., such as the torrential rains and flooding in Texas this spring.

The local news described some rescues that were required last night and some road closures, but no deaths. And more rain is expected tomorrow.

I’ll get over my irritation and be grateful that most communities in the US have good emergency alert systems.

Hyper-Reach Used in a Three-Hour Police Standoff in Rochester

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (TWCNews)  —  A domestic situation Friday inside a home on the 100 block of Rosewood Terrace sparked a three-hour police standoff. One man is now in custody and Rochester police officers are searching for a gun.

It started around 2 p.m. Friday when police said they received a phone call from a woman inside who said she was in trouble. Once officers arrived, the woman told police a man inside the house may have had a handgun.

“Any time you have situation with a possible gun, you want to quickly establish a perimeter around the location so the suspect can.t leave the location and no one can go inside,” explained Rochester Police Lieutenant LaRon Singletary.

The perimeter was just feet away from an School No. 33, which had just dismissed, but there were still a few students on the elementary school campus.

A Rochester City School District spokesperson said about a dozen kids were in the school for open gym time, so the school called their parents to pick them up.

“We had the area contained to Rosewood Terrace. Individuals were told to evacuate to the Webster Avenue side. There was no danger to anyone who was inside the school. We did place officers inside the school so that anyone inside the school was aware of what was going on,” Singletary said.

Neighbors in the area received a Hyper-Reach call alerting them to take shelter and remain inside their homes as police, SWAT, and hostage negotiators tried to get the man out of the home. 

Nearly three hours after the situation started, police went into the home and arrested the man without any problems. Singletary said it was best possible outcome.

“Time was on our side. We utilized SWAT Team, hostage negotiations. The initial responding officers were able to quickly set up a perimeter and contained the situation.”

The suspect is facing charges, which could range from menacing to possible criminal possession of a weapon if a gun is found.

Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste – Lessons in Signing Up Citizens for Emergency Alerts

More than 1 million acres of Washington state were on fire this summer. Dealing with the blazes was so extensive, it brought firefighters from as far away as Australia and New Zealand and cost more than $250 million to contain the blazes.  Among the areas affected was Stevens County.  Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes and the county declared a state of emergency.

One tool emergency managers in Steven County had was a mass emergency notification system.  From June to August, the county operations center used the Hyper-Reach system 84 times, delivering almost 20,000 messages. And over the course of those three months, the system became more and more effective as more and more citizens signed up to receive emergency alerts.

As a result, Stevens County is now on the leading edge of getting its citizens enrolled in an emergency alert system. More than 11,000 people out of an adult population of 35,000 have registered to receive emergency notifications. That’s an enrollment rate of over 30%, which far exceeds the average for most counties and cities throughout the United States. In fact, industry commentators consider 10% to be the maximum sign-up rate in most communities.

Given the success of the Stevens County enrollment effort, it’s important to look at the elements that led to such a high sign-up rate. Here are some of the key success factors according to local officials:

  • Post the link to the sign-up page in as many places as possible. Hyper-Reach provides an online enrollment form on a page dedicated to Stevens County. Stevens County officials included the link to that form on the main page for the county website, the page for the Sheriff’s office, the fire district’s Facebook page and on most press releases sent out during the summer.
  • Get others to help. The link to the form was also shared on information sheets from other agencies and websites, including the US Forest Service, nearby counties, the Spokane Indian reservation and others.
  • Get the media involved. A news story on local station KHQ provided TV coverage of the value of the Hyper-Reach notifications. In the story, a local citizen is shown talking about receiving a warning and expressing his gratitude at being alerted. The web version of the story included the link to the registration page.
  • Get the public involved. Many citizens shared the link via their personal social media, email and in other ways.
  • Offer help when needed. The county’s operation center helped many citizens sign up when they did not have access to the online form or had difficulty filling it out.

But the biggest factor for the high sign-up rate was obviously the fires themselves and the use of the system.  As the table below shows, enrollments spiked in August at the peak of the wildfires, and fell off dramatically in September, after the fires were contained and the number of alerts dropped off.

Hyper-Reach Enrollments and Alerts Delivered, Stevens County, WA 2015

Alerts Delivered New Enrollments
July 6345 1464
August 13266 8403
September 311 335

Overall, Stevens County is grateful that it had an emergency alert system when it was needed. As 911 supervisor Rick Anderson noted, “when you’re sending alerts to your sister, your aunt or uncle, that’s very personal, and any losses can be very tough. The Hyper-Reach system does exactly what we needed to do, it works at getting the message out, and it fits in our budget. Hyper-Reach is so important that we’ve included it as a standard line item in our annual budgeting. We just need to keep going and get 100% of the community enrolled.”

To Call or Not to Call – The Dilemma About “Middle of the Night” Missing Person Calls

It goes without saying that we’re big proponents of emergency alerts, and especially for calls about missing children like this story.  But we’re also aware of the risk associated with calls like this.

The article says that some folks who were angry about being woken called to have their names removed from the list.  That works for mobile phones, but apparently the county (Stearns County, MN) won’t remove landline numbers from the list.

Now, since landline phones are going the way of the dodo (we’re almost to the point where half of all households don’t have a landline), insisting on calling folks’ landlines may only hasten that trend.  And it sure won’t reach the other half of people who only have a mobile phone.

And the majority of the people called would be in bed, asleep or at least at home.  So the odds of them being able to help find the missing child are pretty low.

So here’s the balance that needs to be struck:  call everyone in the area where the child was and hope someone produces a lead while annoying at least some people who will remove themselves from the calling list and possibly be unreachable for future alerts.  Or wait until morning and hope the delay is worth the trade off.

We don’t have an answer and it’s clear from the article that this county doesn’t abuse its alert system.  So we support the county’s choice.  But we do think it’s worth raising the issues involved.


The Importance of Geographic Relevance in Emergency Planning

We spend a lot of time reviewing the literature on emergency planning.  And – in a way – we think that there’s a little too much information out there – without a great guide to what is best or most useful.

One way to help people focus on what’s best for them is to focus on what’s relevant to them.   Some obvious example:  tornadoes aren’t much of an issue in the Northeast, earthquakes are much more relevant in California than Connecticut, and tsunamis don’t register for Kansans.

While that’s all perfectly obvious, the question is how to focus the public’s attention.  And that’s where local emergency managers come in.  Because they know the types of emergencies that are most relevant to the publics they serve.

Here’s a great resource we found on one topic (wildfires).   It lists specific states and what kinds of landscaping is best in those areas.  We wish it were available for all states.

Although our focus is on mass emergency notification, we’re only too happy to point out resources like this that help emergency managers help their constituents get ready when disaster strikes.

3 Keys to More Effective Social Messaging

Emergency managers and public safety officials are increasingly using Twitter and Facebook to get information out to the public.  Social media can be a terrific way to get mass emergency notifications to the public. But the reach and effectiveness of these tools varies a lot from agency to agency.  Here are three things to do to make your social messaging more effective for emergency alerts:

  1. Standardized vocabulary.  We’ve seen at least 2 recent papers talking about this in the past 6 months.  Standardized wording – especially hashtags – makes it easier to find and organize posts about an emergency.  One idea: consider issuing an official hashtag for the public to use when posting information about a specific event.
  2. Easy readability.  Emergency alerts that are easily readable help you in two ways.  First, they get the information to the public more effectively (so they’re a good idea, even for standard emergency notification services).  Second, they help with search engine optimization (SEO), which means that your Twitter account or Facebook page will be found more easily.
  3. Location information. When sending emergency notifications to the public via Twitter or Facebook, remember that everyone who is following your posts could get the message, regardless of where they live or work.  If your message is only relevant to folks within a few square miles of an incident, include the location in your post.  Otherwise, you risk confusion or worse.

We think that social media are very important for emergency managers, which is why Hyper-Reach integrates with both Twitter and  Facebook and allows multiple feeds for each.  But making effective use of these tools requires some changes in thinking from standard emergency alerts, such as “reverse 911”.  Fortunately, it’s easy to use social media and other mass notification tools in conjunction with one another to get the maximum reach to the public.

Snow in June? In Cambridge, MA?

We think social media is really important for emergency notification (Hyper-Reach lets you integrate with multiple feeds for both Twitter and Facebook.  But social media has its issues. This post was put out by @CambridgeMABuzz, part of the “Breaking News Network” and was based on a page on the city’s website.  Why they picked it up today and sent it is a mystery (we’ve asked).

The page on Cambridge’s site had no date, so that’s not helpful.

Lesson learned:  If you’re going to put out news on your website, clearly date the post, so if someone picks it up later than is useful, you can at least head off confusion.  Better yet, use your Facebook or Twitter feed or blog site to post news stories, then display them on a window on your home page.  That way, dates are automatically displayed and you’ll get double coverage (your social media account and your home page) of your news items with a single posting.Cambridge snow advisory