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

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.

Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste – Lessons in Signing Up Citizens for Emergency Alerts

[linkedin_share style=”none”] [fbshare type=”button”] More than 1 million acres of Washington state were on fire this summer. Dealing with the blazes was so extensive, it brought firefighters from as far away as Australia and New Zealand and cost more than $250 million to contain the blazes.  Among the areas affected was Stevens County.  Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes and the county declared a state of emergency.

One tool emergency managers in Steven County had was a mass emergency notification system.  From June to August, the county operations center used the Hyper-Reach system 84 times, delivering almost 20,000 messages. And over the course of those three months, the system became more and more effective as more and more citizens signed up to receive emergency alerts.

As a result, Stevens County is now on the leading edge of getting its citizens enrolled in an emergency alert system. More than 11,000 people out of an adult population of 35,000 have registered to receive emergency notifications. That’s an enrollment rate of over 30%, which far exceeds the average for most counties and cities throughout the United States. In fact, industry commentators consider 10% to be the maximum sign-up rate in most communities.

Given the success of the Stevens County enrollment effort, it’s important to look at the elements that led to such a high sign-up rate. Here are some of the key success factors according to local officials:

  • Post the link to the sign-up page in as many places as possible. Hyper-Reach provides an online enrollment form on a page dedicated to Stevens County. Stevens County officials included the link to that form on the main page for the county website, the page for the Sheriff’s office, the fire district’s Facebook page and on most press releases sent out during the summer.
  • Get others to help. The link to the form was also shared on information sheets from other agencies and websites, including the US Forest Service, nearby counties, the Spokane Indian reservation and others.
  • Get the media involved. A news story on local station KHQ provided TV coverage of the value of the Hyper-Reach notifications. In the story, a local citizen is shown talking about receiving a warning and expressing his gratitude at being alerted. The web version of the story included the link to the registration page.
  • Get the public involved. Many citizens shared the link via their personal social media, email and in other ways.
  • Offer help when needed. The county’s operation center helped many citizens sign up when they did not have access to the online form or had difficulty filling it out.

But the biggest factor for the high sign-up rate was obviously the fires themselves and the use of the system.  As the table below shows, enrollments spiked in August at the peak of the wildfires, and fell off dramatically in September, after the fires were contained and the number of alerts dropped off.

Hyper-Reach Enrollments and Alerts Delivered, Stevens County, WA 2015

Alerts Delivered New Enrollments
July 6345 1464
August 13266 8403
September 311 335

Overall, Stevens County is grateful that it had an emergency alert system when it was needed. As 911 supervisor Rick Anderson noted, “when you’re sending alerts to your sister, your aunt or uncle, that’s very personal, and any losses can be very tough. The Hyper-Reach system does exactly what we needed to do, it works at getting the message out, and it fits in our budget. Hyper-Reach is so important that we’ve included it as a standard line item in our annual budgeting. We just need to keep going and get 100% of the community enrolled.”

To Call or Not to Call – The Dilemma About “Middle of the Night” Missing Person Calls

It goes without saying that we’re big proponents of emergency alerts, and especially for calls about missing children like this story.  But we’re also aware of the risk associated with calls like this.

The article says that some folks who were angry about being woken called to have their names removed from the list.  That works for mobile phones, but apparently the county (Stearns County, MN) won’t remove landline numbers from the list.

Now, since landline phones are going the way of the dodo (we’re almost to the point where half of all households don’t have a landline), insisting on calling folks’ landlines may only hasten that trend.  And it sure won’t reach the other half of people who only have a mobile phone.

And the majority of the people called would be in bed, asleep or at least at home.  So the odds of them being able to help find the missing child are pretty low.

So here’s the balance that needs to be struck:  call everyone in the area where the child was and hope someone produces a lead while annoying at least some people who will remove themselves from the calling list and possibly be unreachable for future alerts.  Or wait until morning and hope the delay is worth the trade off.

We don’t have an answer and it’s clear from the article that this county doesn’t abuse its alert system.  So we support the county’s choice.  But we do think it’s worth raising the issues involved.

At Hyper-Reach, we have high-quality solutions like our emergency mass notification system and our crisis communication system. Learn more today.


The Importance of Geographic Relevance in Emergency Planning

We spend a lot of time reviewing the literature on emergency planning.  And – in a way – we think that there’s a little too much information out there – without a great guide to what is best or most useful.

One way to help people focus on what’s best for them is to focus on what’s relevant to them.   Some obvious example:  tornadoes aren’t much of an issue in the Northeast, earthquakes are much more relevant in California than Connecticut, and tsunamis don’t register for Kansans.

While that’s all perfectly obvious, the question is how to focus the public’s attention.  And that’s where local emergency managers come in.  Because they know the types of emergencies that are most relevant to the publics they serve.

Here’s a great resource we found on one topic (wildfires).   It lists specific states and what kinds of landscaping is best in those areas.  We wish it were available for all states.

Although our focus is on mass emergency notification, we’re only too happy to point out resources like this that help emergency managers help their constituents get ready when disaster strikes.

3 Keys to More Effective Social Messaging

Emergency managers and public safety officials are increasingly using Twitter and Facebook to get information out to the public.  Social media can be a terrific way to get mass emergency notifications to the public. But the reach and effectiveness of these tools varies a lot from agency to agency.  Here are three things to do to make your social messaging more effective for emergency alerts:

  1. Standardized vocabulary.  We’ve seen at least 2 recent papers talking about this in the past 6 months.  Standardized wording – especially hashtags – makes it easier to find and organize posts about an emergency.  One idea: consider issuing an official hashtag for the public to use when posting information about a specific event.
  2. Easy readability.  Emergency alerts that are easily readable help you in two ways.  First, they get the information to the public more effectively (so they’re a good idea, even for standard emergency notification services).  Second, they help with search engine optimization (SEO), which means that your Twitter account or Facebook page will be found more easily.
  3. Location information. When sending emergency notifications to the public via Twitter or Facebook, remember that everyone who is following your posts could get the message, regardless of where they live or work.  If your message is only relevant to folks within a few square miles of an incident, include the location in your post.  Otherwise, you risk confusion or worse.

We think that social media are very important for emergency managers, which is why Hyper-Reach integrates with both Twitter and  Facebook and allows multiple feeds for each.  But making effective use of these tools requires some changes in thinking from standard emergency alerts, such as “reverse 911”.  Fortunately, it’s easy to use social media and other mass notification tools in conjunction with one another to get the maximum reach to the public.

Snow in June? In Cambridge, MA?

We think social media is really important for emergency notification (Hyper-Reach lets you integrate with multiple feeds for both Twitter and Facebook.  But social media has its issues. This post was put out by @CambridgeMABuzz, part of the “Breaking News Network” and was based on a page on the city’s website.  Why they picked it up today and sent it is a mystery (we’ve asked).

The page on Cambridge’s site had no date, so that’s not helpful.

Lesson learned:  If you’re going to put out news on your website, clearly date the post, so if someone picks it up later than is useful, you can at least head off confusion.  Better yet, use your Facebook or Twitter feed or blog site to post news stories, then display them on a window on your home page.  That way, dates are automatically displayed and you’ll get double coverage (your social media account and your home page) of your news items with a single posting.Cambridge snow advisory

¿Puedes enviar alertas de emergencia en español ?

How’s your Spanish?  Ours just got MUCH better.

Hyper-Reach now offers automated translation of English emergency alerts into Spanish.  The feature is available both for text messages and also does text-to-speech, in order to deliver the message as a voice call.

When an agency uses the Spanish option, the recipient will see the text message in both English in Spanish.  For voice calls, the person being called is prompted to “press 1 for English or 2 for Spanish”.  Both text translation and text-to-voice are powered by Google Translate.

More than 20% of US households speak a language other than English and Spanish is the largest and fastest growing non-English linguistic group in the country.  So being able to deliver your message in Spanish could be very important. In some parts of the US, Spanish is the dominant language for more than half the population.

How good is the translation?  A recent head-to-head comparison (Google vs. a human translator) by the translation service Verbal Ink concluded that “It does a pretty good job of getting the gist of a text or recording, certainly enough for basic understanding.”   Other commenters say roughly the same thing, and make it clear that it’s not good for complex documents, nuance or specialized language.  But emergency alerts are short and should be simple and specific in any case.  And it’s worth noting that more than half a billion people, and over half a million websites use Google Translate,  including sites for the states of California, Texas, New York, Washington and Indiana.  It’s even used on USA.Gov!

Can You Read This Message?

A recent post by Tom Phelan got us thinking about the readability of emergency messages.  Dr. Phelan’s point was that many emergency messages are written at too high a literacy level and won’t be correctly understood by many people.

So we decided to test this though by looking at some messages.  The messages are from three communities in different parts of the US using a popular mass ENS service.  The grade level score comes from

Chance for light snow and patchy black ice this am please monitor your weather radio  **** Grade level: 9.2


19 mile fire in Jefferson County no homes or strctres affected in Butte Silver Bow MT2 frm Roosevelt Dr to MT41 JCT closed  **** Grade level: 10.5

Crdt Scam in the Butte area autocaller from #000-000-0000 caling phones prpmts calrs to enter prsnl info dont answr  **** Grade level: 8.2

We have taken several reports of various scams. Be very careful with activity involving personalinfo or financial transactions.  ****  Grade level 14.2

WEATHER ALERT: ‘Drenching’ Rain, Hazardous Weather Outlook Issued For New Jersey  ****  Grade level 10.5

We think there are more issues with messages like these than just the grade level.  There are typos, abbreviations that might not make sense and a general lack of clarity in some messages.

Try this exercise on messages you’ve sent in the past.  And ask random people (maybe a spouse, child, neighbor or someone at your church) if they understand the messages you’ve sent.  Then think about how to make them clearer.

After all, if the message doesn’t communicate well, you’ve lost an important opportunity.  And if a good message can save lives, a bad message might mean that lives are lost.


Should Infectious Disease PSAP Protocols Cover Informing the Public?

Thanks to Urgent Communications for leading us to this flow diagram, produced by the CDC, which outlines steps to take when receiving a call from someone who thinks they have Ebola.

It looks very helpful, but – despite the use of the word “inform” – we don’t see much about what information, if any, to give to either the folks living in the area of the suspected patient or the general public.

Since PSAPs are often the primary users of emergency notification systems and since these systems are sometimes used to alert the public of infectious diseases, we’re wondering if it’s time to develop protocols for when and how to alert the public in the case of infectious diseases.

The question is much broader than Ebola. Here in Charlotte, NC, we’ve had two cases of food service workers with hepatitis that could have spread to the general public. And the recent outbreak of measles is another case. We’re pretty sure there are many more. And we’re also sure that the protocols to follow will vary with the nature of the disease and how it spreads.

Emergency alert systems such as Hyper-Reach now cover at least 80% of the US population, mostly at the county level. At the rate they are growing, it won’t be long before they reach almost the entirety of the US. But despite that coverage, there isn’t much of a literature on best practices or established protocols for their use. We think it’s time to develop one.