Let’s re-write another NWS alert

This recent alert was screaming “re-write” when it came in last night.   So here goes:

The Original

HEADLINE: Heat Advisory issued June 17 at 10:38PM EDT until June 18 at 8:00PM EDT by NWS Buffalo

DESCRIPTION: …HEAT ADVISORY REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM 10 AM TO 8 PM EDT
MONDAY
* LOCATIONS…Niagara, Orleans, Monroe, Wayne, Northern Cayuga,
Oswego, Genesee, Livingston, and Ontario counties.
* TIMING…From late Monday morning through early Monday evening.
* HEAT INDEX VALUES…In the upper 90s.
* IMPACTS…The combination of hot temperatures and high
humidity levels will result in a potential for heat-related
illnesses if proper precautions are not taken.

INSTRUCTIONS: A Heat Advisory means that a period of hot temperatures is
expected. The combination of hot temperatures and high humidity
will combine to create a situation in which heat illnesses are
possible. Drink plenty of fluids…stay in an air-conditioned
room…stay out of the sun…and check in on relatives and
neighbors.
Take extra precautions if you work or spend time outside. when
possible…reschedule strenuous activities to early morning or
evening. Know the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat
stroke. Wear light weight and loose fitting clothing when
possible and drink plenty of water.
To reduce risk during outdoor work…the occupational safety and
health administration recommends scheduling frequent rest breaks
in shaded or air conditioned environments. anyone overcome by
heat should be moved to a cool and shaded location. Heat stroke
is an emergency – call 9 1 1.

———————————————————————————————————–

Our Re-write, based on the Mileti principles:

HEADLINE: NWS Buffalo: High Temperature Danger on Monday, June 18 from 10AM to 8:00PM EDT

* SOURCE: NWS Buffalo

* HAZARD: Heat index in the high 90s starting at 10AM Monday.  Hot weather and high humidity means a risk of heat illness, heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

* LOCATIONS…NY State: Niagara, Orleans, Monroe, Wayne, Northern Cayuga, Oswego, Genesee, Livingston, and Ontario counties. (a link to a map here would make so much sense.)

* GUIDANCE …From 10AM Monday, drink plenty of fluids…stay out of the sun and in air-conditioning where possible…and check in on relatives and neighbors.
If outside, do these things, if possible: limit high-effort activities to early morning or evening. Wear light weight and loose fitting clothing. Drink plenty of water.  Schedule rest breaks every hour in the shade or cooler area. Anyone overcome by heat should be moved to a cool and shaded location. Call 9 1 1 if heat stroke or exhaustion is suspected.

* EXPIRES… Early Monday evening (8PM).

———————————————————————————-

Not only does this reduce the number of words, but we cut the reading level required by 1-2 grades and went from “fairly difficult” to “fairly easy” to read. (Here’s the test we used.)

This could also be improved on.  For example, a link to a resource explaining the symptoms of heat exhaustion/stroke would be helpful.   And the words “overcome by heat” are ambiguous.  Listing some symptoms, such as “feeling faint, dizzy or weak” would be much more clear.

To make a template out of this, we could do it this way, making the assumption that there is a weather forecast that lets us choose a start time:

* SOURCE: {Source}

* HAZARD: Heat index in {Heat index} starting at {Start time}. Hot weather and high humidity means a risk of heat illness, heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

* LOCATION {Location}

* Guidance: From {Start}, drink plenty of fluids…stay out of the sun and in air-conditioning where possible…and check in on relatives and neighbors.
If outside, do these things, if possible: limit work or exercise to early morning or evening. Wear light weight and loose fitting clothing. Drink plenty of water.  Schedule rest breaks every hour in the shade or a cooler area. Anyone overcome by heat should be moved to a cool and shaded location. Call 9 1 1 if heat stroke or exhaustion is suspected.

* EXPIRES… {Expiration time}.

A lesson in rewriting emergency alerts

Since we just published our take on how to write emergency alerts, we thought we could use an alert we just got from NYAlerts to suggest ways to improve your alert writing skills.

Below are three versions of the alert: (1) the original text; (2) our re-write, using the format provided by the alert, since it appears to be pre-formatted to those 6 elements: headline, description, locations, timing, impacts and instructions, and (3) our re-write, using the guidelines from Professor Mileti.

The amount of detail you want to include and what description will be most helpful are obviously judgment calls and local knowledge is key.  But we like our versions better for a few reasons:

  1. Less ambiguity. What is “early this evening?”  If 8PM is clear, why not stick with that?  What’s the difference between a “dangerous area” and any other structure?  Isn’t the issue here that any structure is a risk because a wave can cause a swimmer to collide with it?
  2. Less formal language. Why a “Beach Hazards Statement” instead of just “Hazardous Beach Conditions?” In fact, with a little more time, we might try to simplify that phrase.  How about “Unsafe Beaches?”
  3. Active, rather than passive verbs.  You learned this in school.  “Remains in effect” is passive.  Actually, we just took out the verb in the 2nd re-write.
  4. Shorter. On a word count basis, we saved 10 words, which is more than 10%.  It’s just easier to read.

 

Actual Alert

* HEADLINE: Beach Hazards Statement issued June 14 at 10:30AM EDT until June 14 at 8:00PM EDT by NWS Buffalo

* DESCRIPTION: …BEACH HAZARDS STATEMENT REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 8 PM EDT THIS EVENING…

* LOCATIONS…Beaches of Niagara, Orleans, Monroe, and Wayne counties.

* TIMING…Through early this evening.

* IMPACTS…Strong currents and dangerous swimming conditions.

INSTRUCTIONS: A Beach Hazards Statement is issued when there is a high swim risk. This means life threatening waves and currents are expected. Stay out of the water and stay away from dangerous areas like piers and breakwalls.

1st Re-Write

* HEADLINE: NWS Buffalo: Hazardous Beach Conditions from June 14 at 10:30AM EDT until June 14 at 8:00PM EDT

* DESCRIPTION: …HAZARDOUS BEACH CONDITIONS ARE IN EFFECT UNTIL 8 PM EDT THIS EVENING…

* IMPACTS…High risk of drowning. Life threatening waves and currents expected.

* LOCATIONS…Lake Ontario Beaches of Niagara, Orleans, Monroe, and Wayne counties, NY. From Niagara-on-the-Lake to Fair Haven.

* INSTRUCTIONS: …Stay out of the water and away from piers, breakwalls and other structures near the water’s edge.

* TIMING…Through 8PM tonight.

 

2nd Re-Write

* HEADLINE: NWS Buffalo: Hazardous Beach Conditions, June 14 from 10:30AM until 8:00PM (EDT).

* SOURCE: NWS Buffalo

* HAZARD: …LIFE THREATENING BEACH CONDITIONS UNTIL 8 PM THIS EVENING…High risk of drowning. Life threatening waves and currents expected.

* LOCATIONS…The southern shore of Lake Ontario including Niagara, Orleans, Monroe, and Wayne counties, NY. From Niagara-on-the-Lake to Fair Haven.

* GUIDANCE: …Stay out of the water and away from piers, breakwalls and other structures near the water’s edge. Do not swim.

* EXPIRATION…Through 8PM tonight.

Don’t Overpay for Emergency Notification Services

We came across this announcement for the town of Smithers, British Columbia, in Canada, which honestly made our blood boil just a little.

Smithers is a small town of about 5,300 people. That means it has about 2,100 households and less than 1,700 of those households have a landline.  And the emergency notification provider they chose is charging them $7,500 per year.

We’re glad that the public safety folks in Smithers think that emergency notification services are worth more than $3 per household.  On that point, we agree.  But that’s a crazy high amount to be paying for such a small community.

In fact, we know of emergency notification companies that would charge between $2,000 – $3,000 per year for the same service.  And at least one of those companies would offer the same kinds of services, with messages delivered as voice messages to landline and cell phones, text messages, email, pager messages, Facebook and Twitter feeds, RSS feeds, and even Internet posts and more.  And that company would deliver those messages just as fast and possibly faster, just as reliably and possibly more reliably, thanks to their use of cloud-based computing services companies.  And – despite what the story says – the recipients of those messages would be able to respond to verify that they’d received the message.

Which makes us wonder what the citizens of Smithers are going to get for the extra $5,000 or so they’ll be paying each year for this service. And what they could do with that $5,000 if they’d found a less expensive service provider.

So, congratulations to the citizens of Smithers.  Emergency notification services are highly valuable.  And well worth the money you’ll be paying.  But when it comes time to renew your contract, shop around a bit.  We think you can get a much better deal.

 

 

Don’t be embarrassed by a bogus RFP

We’re working on some RFPs from a number of cities and counties and came across one that’s so heavily skewed toward a particular vendor, it inspired us to think about some principles that are worth considering if you work in procurement.  Although the examples are for mass emergency notification services, the lessons should apply to any RFP sent out by a government agency.  Because if you’re sending out an RFP the violates the guidelines below, I think you’re setting yourself up for trouble if other vendors complain to whoever you may be accountable to.

Quick note: we’re not going to file a complaint about this RFP.  If we’ve decided you don’t want our services, we just go find customers who do.

  1. Don’t list requirements you don’t understand.  There’s a requirement here to get a certification related to the “Safety Act”.  One of the criteria for that certification is that the technology is not widely released.  Since what we sell is used by thousands of cities and counties around the US, it’s pretty obvious that the technology is widely released and we’re not going to get that certification.  I doubt the RFP writer had any idea what they were asking for.
  2. Don’t list requirements that are irrelevant.  The city that issued this RFP has fewer than 20,000 people, which means fewer than 10,000 callable phones.  But they want proof that an emergency notification provider has previously placed 3 million calls in a 24 hour period.  That’s more than 300 times the capacity they are ever likely to require.  Do they really want to eliminate vendors that can only document, say, 1,000,000 calls in 24 hours?
  3. Don’t list requirements that are archaic.  This RFP requires a smartphone app running on Windows phones.  Now, since Microsoft has pretty much abandoned all three Windows phone operating systems developed over the last 10 years, this requirement raises all kinds of questions.  An obvious one would be this: “assuming you actually have some Windows phone users, wouldn’t it be cheaper just to get them to switch phones than pay the premium it will cost to limit yourself to one possible vendor?”
  4. Don’t use the “inside baseball” language.  There’s a line in this RFP that says vendors aren’t supposed to use “cascading calling methodology.”  Since there’s no definition of what that means, this kind of question accomplishes nothing.  Every vendor will simply respond the way they expect the customer wants the answer and the customer – who probably has no idea what the term means – is unlikely to challenge those answers.
  5. Design your requirements to address your REAL needs. Instead of getting caught up in obscure technicalities, specify requirements based on your objectives.  This RFP is full of technical details about a system that provides for communication between government agencies. It happens that most government agencies don’t actually use the system discussed, so all the details about how it works are so many words about nothing of consequence. Meanwhile, the RFP asks comparatively little on how a vendor will effectively get an emergency message in front of the largest number of citizens in an effective way.

Of course, if you’re required to send out an RFP and you really know who you want to choose, maybe these questions serve a valuable purpose.  After all, we’re not going to use our valuable time to respond to an RFP that’s obviously skewed to a particular vendor.  And if you’re the buyer, you’re not wasting your time going through the motions pretending that you’re actually comparing vendors fairly.  In many ways, sending out an RFP that pretends to be fair is actually worse for all involved, since it usually takes a lot of time to answer one of these.

If you really want to have some viable options and get the best deal for your agency, consider an outcome-focused RFP that’s based on your actual objectives.  In our case, we think that most buyers should want to reach as many of their citizens – and often, staff members –  as they can, as easily, quickly, reliably and effectively as they can. Requirements that are built around these specific goals tell us that you’re a serious buyer, worthy of our attention.

Thanks for letting me rant.  Now I’ve got to get back to answering the other RFP I have on my desk.

Why Cloud Deployment Levels the Playing Field for Mass Emergency Notification

The days of paying too much for emergency notification are at an end.  And the reason is simple: the cloud.

Many emergency managers and others who buy emergency notification systems (ENS) are under the impression that the size of the ENS company is important.  There’s a logic to that position that seems to make sense.  After all, a bigger company can send out more messages in a shorter period of time, right?

Wrong.  While that logic may have worked 10 years ago, it’s way out of date today.  And the reason is simple: the cloud.

By “the cloud”, we mean cloud computing companies, such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft and others.  These companies are now providing massive computing power that is very inexpensive, highly reliable, easily scaled to near-infinite capacity, amazingly flexible and highly interconnected with telecom and internet service providers.

Consider this: the largest ENS provider has a total annual revenue of just over $100 million dollars, while Google alone invested over $30 billion dollars on cloud computing technology in just one year.  And Google is playing catch-up to Amazon.

And all that investment isn’t just for hardware.  Much of it goes to software that automates the failover, security and configuration processes that allow its customers to rely on its highly reliable services.  Amazon boasts over 30 security certifications and offers a super-secure version of its AWS services that’s good enough for the Pentagon.  And in this area, it’s probably playing catch-up to Microsoft.

In fact, one of the great aspects of the cloud computing business for us, and many other IT companies, is the aggressive competition among them, because it means that their services are constantly improving while their prices actually go down.

The implications for emergency notification services are profound.  While Hyper-Reach is a relatively small provider of ENS services, we can actually scale to exactly the same capacity as our very largest competitors.  With the same, or better, reliability.  And the same, or better, security. (More on these points later.)

So before you agree to pay a premium of 30%, 40%, 50% or more for the supposed security of a larger company, look for ENS companies that leverage the power of cloud computing in delivering their services.  (The same logic, BTW, applies to other technologies.) We think you’ll be amazed at how much value you can get – not to mention personal service – while paying less for your ENS system.

Escape convict situation shows the power of integrated emergency notification services

On October 12, Phillip Roar, a 39-year old Kentucky state inmate decided to escape the work crew he was on.  He managed to get away, setting off an all night manhunt by Bath county Jailer Earl Willis and others.  Fortunately, he was captured the next day and returned to custody.

Key to his re-capture were the many tips provided by the community, tips that were solicited by Bath County Emergency Management, with the help of the Hyper-Reach system, which sent voi

ce and text messages to over 4,000 telephone numbers, email addresses and the county’s Emergency Management Facebook account.  The original message asking for help included both a physical description of Mr. Roar, as well as his picture, using Hyper-Reach’s ImageReach™ picture messaging system.  The Facebook post was shared more than 350 people, including the local newspaper Bath County News Outlook, resulting in more posts throughout Facebook and other social media.

This event is a great case study for the power of an integrated mass emergency notification system, such as Hyper-Reach.  The Emergency Management agency was able to send the message as a voice, text, email and social media post with a single set of actions and just clicking the different delivery methods they wanted to use.  Every recipient of the message was able to retrieve the image of the escapee, regardless of how they got the original message.  And the easy integration of Facebook made it simple for the message to appear on the county EM’s Facebook page, where it was shared by hundreds – and possibly thousands – of other people.

Emergency message sent by Bath County EM

 

 

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.