How Dallas Used Their Emergency Alert System During Ebola Crisis

This story from Urgent Communications profiles how Dallas used their Mass Emergency Notification System (MENS) to help in their education efforts during the time that Thomas Eric Duncan and two nurses were diagnosed with the Ebola virus.

What the article makes clear is that the longest time spent in sending the messages was in deciding what to send – both in the way of content and also in terms of the frequency of messaging.

Like Hyper-Reach, the Dallas system uses landline phone numbers from the 911 database, combined with self-registration data to capture cellphones and email addresses.  Numbers to be called can be selected by geography (our system uses Google Maps, which we consider to be a big benefit, since it’s so familiar and easy to use.)

We’ve talked to public health workers about the use of emergency alert systems like Hyper-Reach for alerts about disease outbreaks and other public health risks and they agree these systems can be useful.  We also think it’s important to consider the use of IPAWS and WEA messages when there’s a real crisis.  WEA messages don’t depend on registration, so they reach every WEA-equipped cellphone (which is most of them) within a selected geography.

So we’re encouraging our clients – and all public safety folks – to think about how they would use Hyper-Reach or systems like it in a public health emergency like a disease outbreak.  And let us know if we can help.

Drones for Emergency Alerts?

This story is about the use of drones for emergency response, but we think there are some fascinating applications for emergency alerts.

Drones offer some really interesting capabilities for helping to alert the public:

  1. Mobile sirens.  Today, various communities spend tens of thousands of dollars on fixed sirens that have limited coverage.  A single siren on a drone could cover many square miles in just a few minutes;
  2. Mobile PA.  Instead of sirens, a drone equipped with speakers could broadcast a voice message in a small area, delivering very specific information about, for example, a downed power line;
  3. Mobile reconnaissance.  Many times, emergency alerts over-select the population that needs to be alerted.  A drone equipped with camera and other sensing equipment might be able to report the specific area affected by an emergency.

Crazy?  Perhaps.  But consider how inexpensive drones are in the story that inspired us.  These were developed to carry a defribillator to help revive heart attack victims.  And they’re cheap:

Momont proposes expanding the existing emergency medical infrastructure with a network of fast and compact drones that have communication capabilities and can carry medical auxiliary equipment. “The costs should not be an issue; I have calculated these at approximately €15,000 per drone, which is clearly a reasonable amount if you consider the number of lives that could be saved.”

It’s easy to get nervous about devices running around blaring alarms, but in a world where packages may be delivered by drone, it’s time to think about how else drones can help.

Emergency Alerts for Political Purposes – Not Cool

Mass emergency notification services like Hyper-Reach are used for letting the public know of emergency situations that can threaten life, health or property.  And that’s a good thing.

But this morning our news searches uncovered a story that suggests a sheriff in California was using its community alert service for political purposes.  The story talks about the high number of alerts sent before a primary election and how those alerts decreased significantly after the primary, in which the incumbent sheriff lost.  According to the story, the alerts seem to have been designed to show the incumbent’s activity level in fighting crime.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about alert services misused for political purposes.  We saw a story two years ago about an alert urging voters to get to the polls.  That story suggested that the alert was targeted to areas with high levels of the incumbent’s supporters.

Since it’s the day after election day, it seems like a good time to comment on this kind of activity.  To say that it’s inappropriate is belaboring the obvious. And in an environment where it’s important to get the public signed up for emergency alerts, this kind of thing can only be hurtful.

If you’re in charge of your community’s alert system, we suggest you create a code of conduct to make sure that the alerts you – or your successors – send out are appropriate and justify a citizen’s willingness to sign up for your alert service.

Alert – It’s time to vote

Americans have a funny attitude about elections.  We claim the status of a democracy, but too many of us fail to exercise our right to vote.

And among those who are consistent voters, too many of us are perfectly willing to go along with attempts to suppress the votes of the folks we disagree with or inflate the votes of those we agree with.  That’s not a commentary about one party or the other.  Dirty tricks, fraud, gerrymandering and voter suppression have been used by Democrats, Republicans, Whigs, Federalists and Democratic-Republicans all the way back to the early days of our republic.

But as flawed as our system is, we agree with Winston Churchill, who famously observed that democracy was the worst political system, except for all the others.

And as flawed as our system is, it’s gotten us pretty far.  The USA is still the leading beacon of light in a world that keeps – however slowly and painfully – getting better, safer, wealthier and more free.

So get out there and vote, if you haven’t already.  It’s your right and your responsibility.  And it’s the only way to keep our system as good as it can be.


“Do 1 Thing” Says It’s Emergency Supply Month

If you don’t know “Do 1 Thing“, you should.  This is a program that’s based on the idea that if you do one thing each month for emergency preparedness, you’ll be 12 times better prepared than if you do nothing at all.

The idea (we assume) is that it’s easier to eat an elephant one bite at a time than to sit down and eat the whole thing at once.

Their “one thing” for November is Emergency Supplies.  These include batteries, flashlight, cash and medicines, but there are many others. Go visit their site for more details.

Here’s a thing you should also do – sign up for your local emergency alert system.  If you don’t know where to go, just click on and sign up there so you’ll be registered anywhere in the US with emergency alert service.

Internet Alerts – the Next Big Thing?

Many thanks to Rick Wimberly for cluing us into the Federation for Internet Alerts (see this story) and now telling us that the Weather Channel may do a related kind of thing (although theirs will also include a message authoring capability, it seems).

And Google offers something similar, which they call Google Public Alerts.

A quick search suggests that the average American spends between 1 – 3 hours per day on the Internet via PC or phone, so getting to people via the Internet adds an important new channel.  And because Internet alerts can include hyperlinks, they can provide much more information than a 90-character WEA (Wireless Emergency Alert) or even an EAS broadcast, which is typically just text scrolling on the bottom of the TV screen.  (See this for an example of the kind of information available for an Amber Alert.)

The folks at the Federation for Internet Alerts (FIA) told us that they were the #1 source of tips generated on Amber Alerts last year.  That’s pretty impressive and shows the potential here.

If you’re a Hyper-Reach client, know that we’ve already approached the FIA and Google about letting us integrate so that you can send your emergency alerts to these networks using Hyper-Reach.  It may take a while to get there (FIA told us they have issues they need to resolve first, for example.)  And we’ve started a discussion with the Weather Channel as well. Since we’re already compatible with CAP (Common Alerting Protocol), we’ve got the technology down.  There are still many issues to work out, but we see some great opportunities to enhance emergency alerts coming up.

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.