Everyone loves a puppy

Since our readers are in public safety and my uncle was on the Boston PD, I felt like I could share this, even though it seems pretty close to pandering.

But darn, it’s cute.

IPAWS at the Local Level. Getting There… Slowly.

We just did an analysis of the local agencies approved for sending alerts through the IPAWS system.  The data is current as of September 26 (you can find it here on FEMA’s website).

As of this writing, there appear to be a little more than 420 counties approved or in process to become IPAWS Alerting Authorities (these are agencies that can send out messages using the IPAWS network.)  Add to that about 130 municipal and consolidated governments, and that makes less than 600 agencies at the local level approved or waiting for IPAWS use.

Because of overlapping jurisdictions, the population counts are tricky.  But at the very most, these local agencies cover perhaps 70 million of the US population of more than 300 million.  So perhaps 20% of the US population can be reached locally by IPAWS alerts.  (We think it’s less than that, though.)

Of course, state agencies can send out local alerts, too.  And it seems as though this might be the intent in some states, especially in New England, where no local agencies have been approved for IPAWS.  Since FEMA rules require an Alerting Authority to get approval at the state level, it looks as though the New England states (ME, MA, CT, VT, NH, RI) are restricting IPAWS access to the state level.

In other jurisdictions, we see a few patterns:

  1. Where the specific agency is named, the emergency management agency or emergency services agency is named most often.
  2. The next most common agency named is the sheriff’s department. (Of course, in some places, emergency services is part of the sheriff’s department.)
  3. In one county – Montgomery County, TX – there are two agencies listed as Alerting Authorities.  Bot the Office of Emergency Management and the Sheriff’s Office are listed as approved AA’s.
  4. In a handful of jurisdictions, the “agency” named is the County Commissioners or County Government.  So, presumably, these are delegating the authority to some other department or departments.

Why these patterns are developing as they are is interesting, but will require surveying the various states and agencies to understand what’s going on.  In the meantime, it seems clear that most IPAWS alerts will continue to come largely from Federal and State authorities.

Which is a shame, we think, since Wireless Emergency Alerts can help to reach many more people who may be in harm’s way.

We’ll update this data regularly, so expect more insights here.

Ebola. More than an excuse to get people signed up for Emergency Alerts.

Ebola is such a huge topic right now, there’s strong potential value in suggesting to the public that they sign up for your local emergency alert system in case there’s an outbreak in your area.  “Ride the wave” as my daughter would say.

To be clear, we don’t think there’s much risk of an Ebola outbreak in the US.  And we don’t want to encourage fear-mongering.

But, as this New York Times article suggests, the level of fear about Ebola is affecting the public’s behavior, regardless of how rapidly the disease is, or is not, spreading.  So getting folks signed up for alerts can serve multiple purposes anytime there’s a potential public health crisis:

1) Getting out the facts.  Emergency alerts can be used to alert the public to sources of factual information – including information that can calm unnecessary fears.

2) Correcting misinformation.  According to the article, some parents pulled their kids out of school because the principal had traveled to Zambia.  But Zambia has had no cases of Ebola and Zambia is further from the part of Africa with Ebola than France is.

3) Directing people to help when there’s a real crisis.  We doubt that Ebola will amount to much of a disease threat in the US, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be real threats in the future.  If and when that happens, we’ll want to be prepared.  And getting citizens signed up for emergency alerts is one small but important part of that preparation.


Wireless Emergency Alerts. Who’s in Charge?

Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) are 90-character text messages broadcast to mobile phones as part of FEMA’s IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert Warning System).  These alerts are meant to help keep people safe.  But who gets to send out these notifications?

This post summarizes key points from “Best Practices in Wireless Emergency Alerts”.

Only approved Alerting Authorities may send out WEA alerts.  At the county level, several agencies may be authorized to send out WEA’s depending on the nature of the emergency.  Becoming an Alerting Authority requires choosing a software provider (or writing your own), filling out some paperwork with FEMA, getting approval from your state, and completing the training.

Once approved, potentially any governmental agency can send out WEA messaging.  The fire department can send alerts about explosive fires, criminal activity alerts can be sent by the police department and extreme weather alerts can be sent by the emergency management agency. The types of messages sent and who sends them should be decided prior to an emergency taking place so procedures and protocols are set and followed.

Inter-agency and intra-agency communication is important.  Prior to a WEA being sent out, the personnel in charge of other communication methods such as the Emergency Management Agency’s (EMA) Twitter, Facebook, and webpage, as well as the 911 center, should be notified as well. These could be used to elaborate on the details of the emergency or to answer questions that the WEA can’t cover due to its 90-character limit. If a citizen who has received a WEA wants to learn more about what is happening, these platforms can provide useful information.

In some cases, such as a wildfire or criminal on the run, the emergency may spread beyond an agency’s geographical jurisdiction. In this case, it is the responsibility of the agency to alert the agency in surrounding jurisdictions ASAP and – hopefully – before a WEA is sent out. Communication and coordination between these agencies is important and ensures that citizens of both jurisdictions are receiving the same, pertinent information.

When the WEA is sent, it is sent out by the agency that is best suited to, determined by a deliberate plan. Ideally, the WEA a citizen receives should be the product of a plan that has been mapped out well before the emergency takes place.

To Follow Up or Not? What’s Best Practice in Emergency Alerts?

Here’s a story about a missing person incident in Needham, MA.  It seems that an autistic young woman went missing and two emergency alert calls were sent to the entire town (one by mistake.)  The story says that some residents were upset that they didn’t get a follow up call to tell them the woman was found and returned home safely six hours later.

It seems that Needham uses an emergency alert provider that charges them every time they use the system.  So a follow up call would cost the town hundreds of dollars, according to our information.  And that mistaken second call probably cost hundreds as well.  (They should switch to one of the unlimited use plans Hyper-Reach offers and both save money and avoid this issue.)   

But regardless of cost, what’s the right protocol for follow up information for alerts?  We don’t think there’s one right answer, but here are some thoughts:

  1. More information is usually better than less.  In general, a follow up call is a good idea.
  2. Context is important.  Needham seems like a close-knit community.  In contrast, we’ve seen anecdotal evidence that “missing person” alert calls in big cities are sometimes unwelcome.  And if the call is unwelcome, a follow up call won’t be welcome either.
  3. Time of day is important.  We wouldn’t recommend calling after 9PM for a non-urgent call.  (The woman was found around 10PM.)
  4. There are other ways to deliver follow up information.  A news release could let at least some of the community know.

Hard research is lacking in this area, however.  And it’s something we think is needed.  In the meantime, good judgment is the best alternative.  And it’s best if that judgment isn’t affected by unnecessary financial constraints.

Hazards of Misfires with Wireless Emergency Alerts

This story from LAist.com illustrates the danger of mistakes in the use of IPAWS and the Wireless Emergency Alert system.

In late September, the LAPD sent out a WEA alert warning about about a dock fire at the port of LA (see photo from Reddit).  But the WEA alert went out to residents as far as 40 miles away.

To make matters worse – according to the article – the alert went out at around midnight, three hours after the fire was mostly contained.  Which means it wasn’t relevant, wasn’t useful and was seriously irritating to many of the people who received it.

We have a number of concerns and some thoughts about how to repair the damage:

  1. Mistakes like this are going to cause people to turn off WEA alerts on their phone.  It’s a simple process, if you know how, to turn off all alerts except those from the President.
  2. Confusion with other alert systems will result in resistance to enrolling in those.  If you read a story like this, how likely are you to want to sign up for other public safety alerts?
  3. The resulting PR blow back may inhibit future emergency alerts from being sent.  Which could endanger the public further.

Does it have to be this way?  Here are some thoughts about making things more effective:

  1. Avoid the cryptic messaging.  Instead of “in this area”, use “within x miles of the Port of LA”.  Replace “Take Shelter Now” with “stay indoors to avoid toxic fumes”.
  2. Use two messages.  WEA messaging is limited to 90 characters, which helps explain the cryptic text.  But authorities can send multiple messages that provide the needed detail.  And we’d bet that two messages with meaningful information would be better received than one message that’s indecipherable.
  3. Devise “best practices” for WEA messaging in advance.  Writing a message on the fly at midnight risks an ill-conceived text.
  4. Use a good interface.  The LAist article suggests that the group selected was chosen deliberately.  Maybe…  But we’d bet that a good interface that made it easy to select a smaller area might have helped limit who got woken up at midnight.

We’re glad that local officials are using the WEA system for alerting, since it gets around the problem that emergency alert systems are confronting due to lack of wireline listings to call.  But it’s important to get this right.


LA Fire mapLAPD WEA fire warning


Are You Ready for Zombie Preparedness Month?

Throughout the year, states across the country organize disaster preparedness campaigns to educate residents about best practices before, during, and after a natural disaster. Gulf states try to get citizens ready for hurricane season; northeastern states prep their residents for severe winter storms; west coast folks talk up preparation for wildfires and earthquakes; and the Midwest plans for tornadoes.  Etc.

Nothing wrong with these efforts, but perhaps a new angle could get a little more attention.

In a bold stroke, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has recently declared that October is “Zombie Preparedness Month in Kansas.”  The idea is to find a creative approach to grabbing residents’ attention: preparing for the zombie apocalypse is not just for ‘preppers’ any more.  Which means that zombie video game buffs and ‘Walking Dead’ enthusiasts can now apply their survival skills to real life preparation!

State and local authorities hope this initiative will encourage people to actually think about disasters and get them to translate from a flesh eating attack to making it through a tornado strike.

But there’s one major problem with this campaign, as any real prepper could tell the governor.  While the proclamation calls for Kansas residents to have a three-day stockpile of emergency supplies, real zombie fanatics know that a zombie apocalypse would not be a short term disaster. ‘Preppers’ want to be ready for years of isolation and anarchy, while most weather-related disaster plans call for just a few short days of ‘surviving’ on their own.

Still, a few days’ survival is better than none, and this campaign has the advantage of appealing to a younger demographic than traditional campaigns would.

An idea like this is too good not to steal and we hope that other states pick up on it as well.  And why stop with zombies?  With Halloween just a few weeks away, preparing for monsters of all sorts is certainly warranted!

The good news is that everyone, regardless of their disaster risk, has the opportunity to register for emergency notifications at www.usnear.org to receive up-to-date local alerts.

The Future of Social Media and What that Means for Emergency Alerts

This article is a list of predictions from “experts” on where social media will be in 25 years.

While we agree with a lot of the comments that this list is superficial, it’s a interesting prompt to think about how the use of social media will change for emergency managers. 

 by [2039], use of social media will be ubiquitous and integrated into our daily lives in a multitude of ways. It is expected social media will be integrated into wearables that track our habits, and virtual experiences will be part of the package. The challenge will be coping with the massive amounts of data that will deluge the masses. [emphasis added].

Here’s a prediction that we’ll hazard to make.  Emergency alerts will be much more effective once emergency alert systems get “connectors” signed up and enable them to easily re-post alert information.

Our thinking goes a bit like this:  most folks are not attuned to emergency warnings, but some people are.  And among the people who are, some of those are the social connectors that Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book The Tipping Point.  These are the same people who are the “active nodes” that were used in the study we referenced a few days ago.  They’re the folks that spread the word among their network of contacts.  So getting an alert to these people is especially helpful for making sure that the news is disseminated quickly and thoroughly.

And – once an alert is out – interest (assuming that the issue is sufficiently compelling to enough people) will build on its own.  Which leads to people following specific hashtags and folks who make themselves leaders on an issue.

An emergency alert is not necessary for this process to get started.  Remember  Michelle Sollicito’s “SnowedOutAtlanta” Facebook page during Winter Storm “Leon” in January?  She got over 50,000 followers in very short order.  Ms. Sollicito didn’t need an emergency alert to tell her it was snowing.  But we’d bet that getting the Michelle Sollicitos of this world signed up for alerts would make them much more effective – especially for events like tornado warnings, wildfires and hurricanes.

Relying on social media alone to spread emergency alert information seems very haphazard.  We know many people who check their Facebook and Twitter feeds only  intermittently.  And many emergency events require quick response.  (One study we’ve seen says a 15 minute warning can reduce tornado casualties by up to 45%.)

But while social media alone may not be effective, imagine a future that grabs the attention of the most prolific and effective communicators and enables them to get the word out ASAP.

Emergency Management’s Tips on Getting Folks Signed Up for Emergency Alerts

We like Emergency Management magazine, and we were glad to see this article on getting the public signed up for emergency alerts.

And we agree with the suggestions in the article.  For example, the suggestion of offering incentives parallels our experience at the Burke County fair, which our unscientific assessment suggests at least tripled our success.

We also love the suggestion to use an opt-out process, rather than opt-in, but wonder how often it’s a real option.  You need a list of mobile numbers and addresses to make that work.  Public utilities could be a good source, if you can get their cooperation.  We’ve talked to one agency that had access to their water utility’s records and used those on an opt-out basis.

The other suggestions:

  1. Base the messaging on empowerment, rather than fear;
  2. Share success stories about how alerts have helped people;
  3. Get a trusted partner to help out.  For example, using a senior agency to reach the elderly.

These are all great ideas.  Let us know if you have more.


Can Wireless Emergency Amber Alerts Be Made More Effective?

Wireless Emergency Alerts are the alerts that use the IPAWS system and are broadcast to all newer mobile phones in a target area.  They’re intended for imminent emergencies with a high probability of loss of life or property, but they are also specifically enabled for Amber Alerts, which notify the public of an abducted child.

The concern we have with WEA-based Amber Alerts is how cryptic they are.  Here’s a recent one:

Emergency alert Sampson County, NC AMBER Alert: LIC/KHX-728 (SC) 2001 Brown Buick Century Type:Amber Alert

Last year, California residents experienced this kind of frustration deciphering an AMBER Alert WEA message.  As reported by the LA Times, residents across the state received a confusing alert in the middle of the night, containing only the ambiguous message: Boulevard, CA AMBER Alert. UPDATE: LIC/6WCU986 (CA) Blue Nissan Versa 4 door.

We asked a few friends and none of them were 100% sure what an AMBER Alert was exactly.  Most thought it was about a missing child, rather than an abducted one.  So a cryptic description of the vehicle in which the child is suspected of being abducted may not be enough information.

WEA messages are limited to 90 characters and so are limited in what they can say.  But – as a Sprint engineer once pointed out to us – there’s nothing that prevents sending a second message.  And since the message goes out only to a specified geographical area, we wonder if the text would be re-written.

For example this re-write uses one less character and doesn’t depend on people understanding what an Amber Alert is:

Emergency alert Abducted child: Report this car: 2001 Brown Buick Century SC Lic/KHX-728 Type:Amber Alert

And here’s a version that uses a 2-part message:

  1. Emergency alert Child abducted in Sampson County, NC. Look for older Brown Buick Century. Type:Amber Alert
  2. Emergency alert cont’d: SC lic plate: KHX-728  If seen, call 911. Type:Amber Alert

And another, using information about the child:

  1. Emergency alert Child abducted in Sampson County, NC. Boy, age 2, white (Jeremiah Hughes) Type:Amber Alert
  2. Emergency alert Call 911 if you see older Brown Buick Century. SC lic plate: KHX-728   Type:Amber Alert

We have no idea which of these is more effective or if there’s a better re-write possible.  But as professional communicators, it seems to us that there should be research to determine best practices in this area.