The Uses and Abuses of Mass Notification Systems

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We recently saw an alert message from a sheriff announcing that he wasn’t running for re-election.  That’s an unusual use of a community mass notification system, but it isn’t unprecedented.  In October, a county supervisor in upstate NY used the system there to communicate her “good works”.  And we’ve seen other interesting uses for emergency alert systems over the years.

That got us thinking about what kinds of public messages communities send with these kinds of systems. So we reviewed every message we’ve seen over the past two years, focusing on the messages sent to the general public. 

Our database includes the tens of thousands of messages we sent for our customers, as well as thousands of messages sent through all our major competitors. Our sample includes major cities (NY, LA, etc.), rural areas, and everything in between and covers all regions of the US.  

We’ve tried to summarize all of these messages below. Although this summary focuses on warnings, there are often follow up messages that include protective resources (e.g. shelters, evacuation routes) “all-clear” notices, information on recovery or repairs, and related information.  For the sake of brevity, we’ve left out most of that detail. 

While most of the messages we saw follow best practices, it’s worth remembering that every warning message should follow this pattern:

      1. What the hazard is.
      2. The timing and location of the danger (when and where).
      3. What action the reader should take. 

We think these guidelines are useful even when the action is no action. Many messages, for example, were meant to alert residents of unusual situations – e.g. smoke, flyovers, a bomb test – to avoid calls to the 911 center. Most of these messages did not include a statement like “there is no need to call 911,” but our reading of the research suggests that clarity is always better than ambiguity.  So we think you should consider adding that content to your message templates. 

And it’s very important to include specific location information. In too many cases, we saw messages that had little or no location data. Since most messages are text and do not include a map component, it’s difficult for a reader to understand a hazard if they don’t know where it is. That’s especially true for social media messages which can be read by people who may be outside a polygon on a map. 

We also think you should review what your message will look like to the recipient. In the examples below, you’ll see messages that are truncated so that key details are only available by clicking on the link. That’s a bad practice since many residents won’t click on a link without a compelling reason.

It’s not our job to tell you how to use your alert system. But we can at least show you how others are using their systems so you can consider whether those uses are valuable for your residents.

One interesting use of alert systems to consider is when you’re changing alert providers. Several of our newer customers used their old alert system to tell residents they were switching to Hyper-Reach and to send them the link to our signup page and the number we use for telephone signups. We think this is a great way to help make sure the transition to Hyper-Reach goes smoothly and reaches the maximum number of people in your community. 

Alert Messages Types by Category:

Weather – Both Extreme and Potentially Threatening

  • How to prepare for weather, prevent damage (e.g. flooding)
  • Impact of weather: office closures, etc.
  • Resources to deal with weather: e.g. shelter availability, cooling or warming centers
  • Damage reporting requests: e.g. asking for citizen reports of weather damage
  • Added services in response to events, e.g. brush pickup

Other Environmental Hazards

  • Air quality advisories
  • Wildfire
  • Floods
  • Mud/rock slides
  • Explosion hazard
  • Chemical spills

Utility Issues

  • Boil Water, water main breaks, etc.
  • Emergency water availability
  • Gas service issues, including leaks, hazardous situations
  • Electric power issues, e.g. interruptions, resumption of power
  • Energy conservation requests
  • Water conservation requests

Disease and Health-Related Issues

  • Vaccination promotion, advice, reminders
  • Pandemic advice for safety, masking, etc.
  • Pandemic-related reopening notices
  • Other disease-related notices
  • Rabies vaccination clinic availability

Awareness/Avoiding Panic/Pre-empting 911 Calls

  • Smoke, odor awareness
  • Fireworks awareness
  • Bomb, explosion awareness
  • Flyover of military, other aircraft
  • Testing of siren awareness
  • IPAWS test message awareness

Traffic-Related

  • Travel advisory: closed roads, traffic signal problems, other issues
  • Event awareness: e.g. marathons, parades, protests, ect.
  • Parking restrictions
  • Traffic advisory: e.g. speed limit changes, new traffic patterns

Crime/Law Enforcement/Soliciting Assistance

  • Police activity awareness
  • Criminal at large: shelter in place, BOLO
  • Criminal activity, e.g. homicide in area
  • School lock down
  • Active shooter
  • Solicitation for witnesses, crime tips
  • Missing persons, Amber, Silver alerts

Government Service Advisories

  • Government service changes: e.g. garbage, recycling pickup, Christmas tree pickup
  • Office and school closures, opening delays, change in hours
  • 911 usage advice, e.g. things not to call about
  • 911 outage, service issues
  • Emergency sirens not working
  • Police phone out of order, service resumed
  • Park closures due to construction
  • Spay and neuter services

Citizen Participation Invitations and Opportunities

  • Asking for blood donations
  • Soliciting participation in community events, e.g. light contest, kite festival
  • Government agency meetings, e.g. public hearings, citizen workshops, candidate forums
  • Gun buyback program
  • Memorial events, e.g. 9/11, officer funeral service
  • Voting locations and hours

Safety Advisories

  • Burn ban notice, red flag notice
  • Power line down, building collapse, sink hole
  • Rules reminders, e.g. “don’t mix grass clippings with brush to be picked up”
  • Home safety reminders: e.g. dispose of old medicines
  • Swimming advisory: e.g. rip currents
  • Life safety reminders: “children should wear helmets on bikes”, “lock your car”

Other Messages

  • Switching alert services
  • Important message
  • New laws and their impact
  • Tax and utility billing notices
  • Political announcements

Specific Message Examples (Communities Names Selectively Redacted)

  • Signup for HyperReach  by Calling or Texting “Alert” to (740) 669-7798 or the web address: http://hyper-reach.com/ohvintonsignup.html
  • Starting or reopening your small business? Cut red tape in half with NYC Business Quick Start. Call 888-727-4962 or visit nyc.gov/business
  • Our city has an alarming shortage of donated blood. Give blood and help your city. Visit nybc.org or call 1-800-933-2566.
  • This is the Charlotte Mecklenburg police department  please stand by f… https://evb.gg/n#1iuuuue1acb/09aHG0UH or
  • A Friendly Reminder Regarding Grass Clippings: Please do not mix grass clippings with brush piles. The Shrewsbury DPW will not pick u https://rgrp.app/3fmn0qY
  • It’s important to keep our homes safe by cleaning our medicine cabinets and any areas we keep our medicine. Tomorrow, April 24th betwee https://rgrp.app/3xhN25F
  • We need your help in keeping our children safe. Parents, please stress to your children that when they are ridi https://rgrp.app/352ZmJz
  • Sewer Repair Work Planned for next week.  3/7/22 through 3/11/22. nixle.us/DG4NB Reply with a friend’s # to forward
  • Message from Department of Public Works nixle.us/DEHGZ Reply with a friend’s # to forward
  • Residents are encouraged to participate in The City of Manchester’s Holiday Lights Contest! nixle.us/D9ZSZ Reply with a friend’s # to forward
  • ONLY call 9-1-1 for emergencies, not for power outages nixle.us/D8L5R Reply with a friend’s # to forward
  • GUN BUY BACK CASH FOR GUNS EVENT nixle.us/D6X5H Reply with a friend’s # to forward
  • County Sheriff Tom Jones announces he won’t seek re-election nixle.us/DGCTX Reply with a friend’s # to forward
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