Mobile Alerts May Be Bothersome, Yet Essential.

At times, cell phones can be more trouble than they’re worth. Especially when you consider the irrelevant and untimely emergency notifications that cause your phone to go haywire! This is how many Boston residents felt a couple of weeks ago when they suddently receive flash flood warnings. Naturally, most people do not enjoy being notified of emergency that are not relevant to them. Why would someone care about flooding if they are living in a high rise or apartment building? Furthermore, if these alerts wake residents up, it becomes more of a nuisance than helpful.

However, is opting out of these emergency notifications what our response should be? Citizens should be encouraged to stay signed up for these alerts. We are not always prepared for emergencies, but with even a short notice, we can make decisions that could save our lives. These emergency notifications on our cell phones do save lives and are vital to our society. Eric Randall recently wrote:

“Recall the lines of people waiting to charge their iPhone in Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy, and it’ll remind you        that cell phones are one of our last sources of connectivity in times of mass power outage and emergency. Just as          an older generation once gathered around the radio to listen to presidential messages in the wake of disasters, our        generation should take comfort that we have a high-tech way to connect to our emergency services that doesn’t            require our power lines to be up and running (at least until our battery runs out.) These alerts are annoying,                    particularly when we don’t feel very threatened by the flash flood that woke us up from our pre-Wednesday                    slumber, but the alerts do give us a modern-day way to stay connected in dark times. And that is something to                consider when staring down the opt-out switch.”

Through Hail and High Water

Severe weather can have an extremely damaging impact on communities. Often times we think about the damage of tornadoes, heavy winds, hurricanes, and earthquakes. However, they are other assailants that accompany these storms that can cause major damage. Hail can be devastating to towns and cities. Parts of Nebraska and Iowa experience the destruction of hail a few days ago. Roofs can collapse, glass shatters, and drivers caught off guard can loose control of their vehicle. Hail can cause hundreds of thousands of people to lose power and be left in the dark.

The good news from this? With emergency weather notificiations sent to specific areas that will be effected, including those on roads or highways, residents and passerbys have time to prepare. Buisness and homeowners can throw up panels to protect their windows. Drivers have time to seek shelter under bridges or parking decks. Residents can prepare for power outages.

It is important to keep yourself safe and informed with the lastest weather updates by signing up for emergency alerts. You can register for your local alerts at www.usnear.org.

Mobile Phone Emergency Alerts

Even with all the technology we have today, it is still difficult to predict where tornadoes will occur. Every year there are many communities that do not expect a tornado to hit and are not well prepared. This is the case with McKenzie County in North Dakota. Only 14 tornadoes have been reported since 1950 and no deaths. Fortunately, this most recent EF-2 tornado did not claim any lives, although it hit an oil field worker’s camp which is primarily trailers. Trailer parks are generally the most vulnerable and dangerous during a tornado due to lack of sturdy shelter. The residents received an emergency notification on their mobile phones which allowed several people to find the best place possible for cover.

Despite areas that are vulnerable during disasters, it is critical and life saving for residents to receive emergency alerts. Just a few minutes warning can be enough time to find the safest place near you for protection. It is also important for families to discuss these safe areas in case of these events.

The Importance of Tornado Emergency Notifications

On April 28th, several communities in north eastern Mississippi were hit by a F3 tornado. The damage was spanned over 24 miles and the tornado lasted for 26 minutes. In Itawamba County, east of Tupelo, there were no deaths although several houses were completely destroyed. A longtime resident of Ozark gave credit to the areas emergency notification system. He said the tornado alerts gave him and his family plenty of time to seek shelter in their storm cellar. Residents responded to these notifications and because of the warnings, several lives were saved.

Tornadoes can cause devastating damage and kill hundreds of people because they happen so quickly. However, with warning, even if it is just several minutes, those in the projected path of destruction can prepare and keep their families safe.

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).