Use Event Notification for Group Meetings

We’ve been talking about our new Event Notification service for a while now.  It’s very simple – which is how we want it: we create a code you can use for visitors, attendees, etc. to join a special purpose list, which they do by texting that code to our registration number. They’re automatically added to the list, so when you send a message, everyone who’s registered gets the text message. 

The original idea was to send messages before and during an event, such as a public festival, concert, fishing tournament, etc. Now, with the coronavirus, there’s another important and valuable use for this service.

Because the incubation period for COVID-19 averages 5 days and can be as long as 14 days, it’s possible that attendees may develop symptoms only AFTER they have attended an event. So getting all participants to register for alerts as a means of reaching them after the event is potentially just as important as communicating with them before and during the event. 

For a fuller description of communication strategies for mass gatherings, we recommend the CDC’s guidance and the WHO paper that can be found here.

Promote Registration for Emergency Notification

One of the lessons we’ve learned over our many years of providing emergency alert services is that crises are very effective in getting the public to sign up for emergency alerts. Telling your residents that you’ll be using your emergency alert service – and following through – to update them about threats and advice about COVID-19 motivates folks to register for alerts. That serves both the purpose of being more effective in informing them about COVID-19, and also for future purposes. Remember to include a link to your sign-up page on every press release and news story you put out.

If your department or agency isn’t the right one for public health communications but you want to offer the use of Hyper-Reach to the right agency, please let us know. Because of the urgency of this situation, we’ll work with you to enable anyone in your community to use Hyper-Reach to enhance their communications. 

And providing that information is important. In addition to the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control, this World Health Organization paper is very useful in developing a communication strategy for the COVID-19 situation.

Changes to IPAWS Coming Soon.

There are a number of changes to IPAWS that have been in the works for years now and are finally close to being released by FEMA. These include: 

  • Increasing the maximum character count from 90 to 360.
  • Adding support for Spanish language WEA.
  • Adding two new alert categories:
  1. Public Safety Message – for less severe situations.
  2. WEA Test Message – supports state and local WEA testing.
  • Geo-targeting improvements to reach 100% of an area with no more than 1/10th of a mile overshoot.
  • Messages stay on the receiving device for 24 hours unless deleted by the user. 

These changes were supposed to go into effect at the end of November, but have been delayed by FEMA. While we don’t yet know the “go live” date, we’re hoping it’s a matter of weeks, rather than months.

Here are a few points to keep in mind about these changes: 

  • Every aspect of IPAWS WEA messaging is potentially affected by each of the components of the system. These include: 
  1. The IPAWS origination software. If you’re using Hyper-Reach, you can be assured that we’re on top of IPAWS requirements and are either supporting all new changes or will in very short order. After all, we’re one of the leading proponents of IPAWS among ENS providers: we were one of the first to implement IPAWS and have the highest rate of IPAWS adoption among our customers compared with other major ENS providers.
  2. The IPAWS network, as provided by FEMA. This is where the changes we’re expecting are in process.
  3. The mobile carriers, such as AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, etc.
  4. Individual mobile devices. 
  • The different parts of the system affect these changes in different ways.  For example: 
  1. The geo-targeting improvements depend heavily on the carrier’s ability to support them AND the capabilities of individual mobile devices. As a result, the “1/10th of a mile overshoot” change will only be effective on mobile devices that can filter out messages based on their location information. Devices that don’t have the ability to filter or which don’t have location information will receive the message if they’re in the broadcast area of a cell tower in the polygon selected for message delivery.
  2. The character count expansion to 360 depends on the origination software, the carrier’s ability to deliver 360 characters and the device’s ability to display that character length. We’ve seen reports that some carriers won’t be able to support 360 characters right away. 
  3. The testing components mean that FEMA may start requiring monthly testing once those components are available.  Currently, FCC rules require getting a limited waiver for end-to-end testing and that requirement will go away once the full testing components are available. 

Although these changes have taken a long time to come – the FCC issued rules for some of them more than three years ago – they will provide significant improvements in the usefulness and effectiveness of IPAWS. We’re looking forward to them and are committed to continuing to improve your experience in using this valuable service.

Usage Tip: Another Reason to Use Templates (and How to Use Them When You Do)

If you’re already a Hyper-Reach customer, you’re probably using our template feature. Templates make it easy to standardize messages by letting you create stock messages where you just fill in the blanks. 

There are many great reasons to use templates. They improve the quality and consistency of messages and they can help you get a message written quickly. And you can use templates to ensure that you follow best practices, such as including all critical information.

You can also use templates to make sure that your messages are a reasonable length. While Hyper-Reach can deliver longer messages than you would normally use, in most circumstances, shorter is better, all other things being equal.

To make it easy for you to design templates that work for you, we’ve put together a little Google sheet that you can find here. You can use it to design your template and also test it with real-world examples of the kinds of messages you would want to send. 

We hope this spreadsheet is helpful. If you want us to make any changes, just drop us a line at jveilleux@ashergroup.com. We’ll be glad to modify the sheet to help you.

Landslide Detection and Emergency Alerts.

Recently, we came across this article about detecting landslides in India, which kill more than 900 people annually. It got us thinking that something similar might work in the US. The article describes a way to modify a smartphone using its accelerometer to monitor for movements in the soil – for less than $300. Early indications are that it works: in one case, by warning officials to close a road that was later washed out.

Landslides are less common and less deadly in the US, killing about 25 people per year on average.

But the danger from US landslides is growing. Because of development and climate change, the conditions that cause landslides are getting worse, including rerouting of surface water runoff, severe rainfalls, and wildfires that destroy tree cover. As a result, experts are predicting that that landslides will become more common and more damaging. Here in the US, landslides are more dispersed – occurring in all 50 states – which makes it more difficult to focus resources on the areas of greatest risk.  

Fortunately, artificial intelligence and other techniques are being developed to help predict the areas most likely to develop landslides. The US Geological Survey has released a new database which identifies many areas with higher projected landslide risk. And there are new tools in development. One research project in Central America has developed a model to identify areas most at risk, with promising initial results. Closer to home, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are working on machine learning algorithms with the express purpose of identifying high-risk areas in Pennsylvania for infrastructure investment. 

It’s not difficult to imagine a system of early warning sensors like the ones in India, dispersed in high risk areas around the US, which could then send automated alerts in a method similar to the ones sent by the National Weather Service. For example, there’s a new system developed for earthquake alerts in California. But earthquakes kill less than a third as many Americans as landslides do – less than 8 people per year over the last century. So when you hear about a new system for sending landslide danger alerts, remember that you first heard about it here.

Emergency Templates – Get the Right Words Out Faster, More Effectively.

In an emergency, you want to get alerts out quickly. Emergency templates can help. They save you time and also help you create and send clear and effective messages with ease. 

Hyper-Reach added a templates feature to our notification system early this year. With Hyper-Reach, you can create as many predefined, customized templates as you want. You can save them, edit them and use them whenever you need to notify your community – all at no additional cost.

Check out our short video on how easily a message can be created with our predefined templates.

Hyper-Reach templates are made up of two components: “script” and “tokens”.  The “script” is the wording you use that doesn’t change when you send the message, while the “tokens” are placeholders that are replaced by words and numbers for the specific situation your alert is describing. When the words and numbers are used in place of the tokens, the entire message makes sense.   

Here’s a simple example. The “script” is the words in bold, while the tokens are the words within the curly brackets, as well as the curly brackets themselves:

Water main break at {location}. Boil water until {Expiration time}. For updates, {Info link}.

The Hyper-Reach template structure is designed to accommodate “best practices” defined by the experts in the field. Both Dr. Dennis Mileti, Professor Emeritus and former Director of the Natural Hazards Center at UC Boulder and FEMA list Source, Hazard, and Guidance as elements you need to have in your messages.  So use these for the “script” component.

Source

Who is the message from? Your citizens want to know if the message is from an authoritative source. You’ll want to shorten the name of your organization as much as possible for messages with limited space (e.g. IPAWS, SMS.) 

Hyper-Reach can automatically provide the “source” information through a customized caller-ID and custom audio (for phone messages,) as well as for SMS and email messages.  So you only need to add Source for IPAWS and certain other types of messages.

Hazard

What is the danger?  While you can create a generic message, a specific template for the most common hazards in your area (e.g. floods, wildfires, boil water alert etc.) will be helpful. Be sure to include relevant location and time parameters in either the hazard or guidance description when needed.

Guidance

What should the recipient do? Be brief and use standardized words for guidance, e.g.: “evacuate”, “take shelter”, “shelter in place”, check for updates, etc.

Unlike the predefined script, tokens are variable parts of your message, indicated by curly brackets. Hyper-Reach allows you to use any words you want as tokens. We recommend using words that tell the person sending the alert the type of information to fill in, such as {age}, {height}, {guidance time}, {expiration time}, etc. 

Below are token examples you might use depending on the message type. Note that you can use whatever labels you want, although you should use only letters: (A-Z, a-z) and numbers (0-9).  Avoid the use of other characters (!,@,#,$,%,^,&,*,(,),_,+,-,=,?,/,>,<,:,;,{,},[,],|,)

Location

Where is the hazard? When using this, you’ll fill in a description of the place, using language the recipient will understand. 

Guidance

time

When should the recipient act on the information? This could be filled in with words like “immediately” or with a time like 10AM.

Expiration

time

When is the hazard expected to be over or no longer relevant?  Obviously this only applies when the information is available.  You might also plan on using “unknown” to fill in a template.

Description

Can be used for missing person or BOLO alerts. You could also be more specific and define features like “race”, “height”, “weight”, “age”, etc.

Info link

Since SMS and IPAWS messages are limited in length, including links into your message allows you to provide more detail and updates online.

When defining the message template, you’ll put the tokens in curly brackets and type the script as normal text.  For example:

Monroe Cnty 911: Water main break at {location}. Boil water until {Expiration time}. For updates, {Info link}.
Or
Burke Cnty Emergency Mgt: Missing: {name}. {sex}, {age} yrs old,{height},{weight} lbs.,{hair color} hair. Last seen at {location} wearing {clothes}. If seen,{Guidance}. For info, {info link}.

You can even prompt for more specific information within the tokens themselves: 

Burke Cnty Emergency Mgt: Missing person {name}. {Description including sex age ht wt hair}. Last seen {where} wearing {clothes}. If seen,{Guidance}. For info, {info link}.

Although we suggest pre-defining scripts for specific types of emergencies, you can also make a very generic template by treating some of the script elements as tokens.  For example:

Overton/Pickett 911:{Hazard} at {Location} until {Expiration time}.{Guidance}{Guidance time}.

We recommend creating message templates not only for different scenarios but also for different communication channels: Twitter, text messages, and others, since standard Twitter messages are limited to 280 characters, IPAWS WEA messages to 90 characters and standard SMS text messages to 160 characters. (Remember that Hyper-Reach can support longer SMS messages.)
 
Here’s an example of a short message (up to 90 characters) that we have created by using our templates feature:

How Will More Extreme Weather Affect Public Perception of Warnings?

Many climate scientists are predicting that we’ll see more extreme weather events in the future. As USA Today put it recently, “ …this is only the beginning of what will be decades of increasingly dangerous and damaging extreme weather…”  Last week’s huge run of tornadoes seems to fit into that pattern, even if most experts caution about attributing specific events to broader climate trends. 

Which got us wondering how the headlines about extreme weather affect the public’s perception of emergency alerts about the weather. So we went back into the research to see what it says.

As in most social science research, the data is a little murky. But this point stood out to us: people in the Southeast – where tornadoes have the deadliest effect – tend to take tornado warnings more seriously than folks who live where tornadoes are less frequent. 

And another point that was really interesting: most tornado warnings – one source said 75% – are false alarms. Which means that those same folks in the Southeast are both getting false alarms and taking them seriously, regardless. 

And that makes sense to us. While there might be lots of false alarms, there are also many actual tornadoes that cause great destruction: destruction that shows up on the local news. And every time an area gets hit with a disaster, it increases interest in being prepared for “the next time.”

We’ve seen the same thing happen in areas with big wildfires. Some of the biggest spikes in registration for emergency alerts happen exactly when there’s front page evidence that the information in alerts might actually be useful. 

So we’re going to go out on a limb and make this prediction: as extreme weather events of any nature – tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, etc. – become more frequent, the public’s interest in emergency alerts is going to increase.

Using Alert Systems for Events.

Got a local event going on? Whether it’s a bass tournament, a concert or a marathon, many communities have local events that bring in lots of visitors from outside their immediate jurisdictions. And communication with those visitors can be difficult during emergencies and other important situations.

Hyper-Reach can help.

Our new EventReach™ service lets event attendees quickly and easily register for emergency alerts and other important information, just by texting a code to our instant registration number. Then, when you need to send information to your attendees, just create and send a message in the Hyper-Reach system. It’s as simple as that.

With EventReach, registrations are kept active for as long as you determine. You can keep registrations active before, during and after your event to notify visitors while they are on their way, while attending the event, and when they’re on their way home. Here are some of the kinds of messages you can send:

  • Traffic issues around the event
  • Announcements of drawings, surprise events
  • Weather events
  • Delays and changes of venue
  • Cancellations
  • Emergency situations
  • Thank you messages for attending

And EventReach is fully integrated with the Hyper-Reach system, which means that when you send emergency notifications based on the area where the event is taking place, your message will go to both your residents and your visitors, without having to select the visitors list separately. 

So if you’ve got an event coming up, try the new EventReach service. Just contact your Hyper-Reach representative to learn how. 

What India Can Teach Us About Emergency Alerts.

At the beginning of May, the state of Odisha, on the east coast of India, was hit by a cyclone (aka hurricane) with up to 125 mph winds. This is a very poor part of India, where a more powerful storm had killed over 9,000 people 20 years ago. But because of advance preparations, a “zero casualties” policy of the Indian government, and millions of emergency messages, the official death toll from the storm is less than 80 people.

A lot of preparations went into minimizing the number of deaths. Over 900 shelters were created and evacuation plans were tested. A disaster task force, command and control structure and other elements were put in place, and people were recruited and trained to help. There was also a big improvement in early warning systems.  

Emergency notification was also a big part of the preparations and response.  As the New York Times reported: 

“To warn people of what was coming, they deployed everything they had: 2.6 million text messages, 43,000 volunteers, nearly 1,000 emergency workers, television commercials, coastal sirens, buses, police officers, and public address systems blaring the same message on a loop, in local language, in very clear terms: ‘A cyclone is coming. Get to the shelters.’”

There is no IPAWS or equivalent in India. Instead, the government asks mobile carriers to send out messages on an ad hoc basis. There is also extensive use of WhatsApp, the messaging platform owned by Facebook. But mobile phone ownership averages less than 65% in India, vs. almost 100% in the US, so many of these messages may have started by phone, but were then passed by word of mouth to get to everyone. A friend of ours in India tells us that it’s common for people to pass important messages on to the people they know, both in person and by electronic means. 

Our key takeaway is simple: emergency alerts save lives. We also think it’s important to send those alerts as many ways as possible, and to provide consistent messaging to drive home what the risks are and what officials want the public to do. We continue to develop Hyper-Reach to enable sending messages in lots of ways (including social media, RSS, push and Internet messaging) and to encourage consistency in messaging, using templates. And we’ve got new things coming this year to help with all of that. 

The Continued Loss of Landlines

The CDC issued its latest survey results a few weeks ago, showing that the loss of landlines continues, although at a slightly slower pace than in previous releases. According to their data, 41.7% of US households had a landline as of June 2018, a drop of about 1% from the previous six months. 

So that means that today, the percent of households with landlines is likely under 41% (it goes down at least 1% every 6 months.)

Here are a few interesting tidbits from the report:

1) It’s just a matter of time before landlines have gone the way of the dodo. Almost 80% of people aged 25-34 use only cellphones, while only about 30% of those over 65 do. That means that landlines will fade more and more as older people pass away.

2) There is a huge regional difference in landline usage across the US.  Specifically, about 40% of the Northeast (Pennsylvania to Maine) is wireless only, while just under 60% of the rest of the country is. That means that landlines are much less effective from Ohio to Florida to California. 

3) There’s not much difference between urban and non-urban areas. Perhaps because the cellphone carriers have improved coverage in rural areas, the CDC says that both “metropolitan” and “non-metropolitan” households have about the same level of “wireless only.”

4) Renters are much more likely to be “wireless only” than homeowners, probably because homeowners tend to be older. The challenge here for Emergency Managers and notification systems is that renters move about 4 times more often than homeowners, so keeping a registration system updated with their current address is much more difficult.