Never has our nation faced so many threats to public safety. 2017 saw record community destruction in the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma. 2017 was also deemed the deadliest year for mass shootings in modern U.S. history. Add to these threats emerging fears from international terrorism and nuclear attacks, and local government public safety officers across the nation are reeling from the sheer number and variety of potential dangers facing their communities.

Now more than ever, local governments need a system to keep citizens informed in the event of a local emergency, however, recent events have led to growing questions about the use of mass notification systems. In Hawaii, a missile warning message was inadvertently sent to citizens across the state, while in California, communities chose not to use their available systems during the wildfire crisis, which delayed the safe evacuations of thousands of citizens. In light of these events, public safety officers are asking how mass notification systems should be used to keep citizens safe? Most importantly, how can communities avoid a mass communication miscommunication—or a non-communication—when their citizens are in danger?

Lessons Learned: The Hawaiian Missile Alert Malfunction

On Saturday, January 13, residents of the state of Hawaii spent an agonizing 38 minutes believing they were about to be the victims of a missile attack. An alert distributed from the state’s emergency notification system was the cause of the panic—an alert that was distributed in error. 38 minutes after Hawaiians were told to prepare for the worst, they received an updated communication stating that the message was sent in error. Officials explained that the alert was released because “an employee pushed the wrong button.” Hawaiians were outraged by the mistake and were left questioning the accuracy of the notification system.

Lessons Learned: California’s Radio Silence in the Wake of Wildfires

In the fall and winter of 2017, 9,133 wildfires ripped across California, making it the most destructive wildfire season on record. The spread of the fires into towns and neighborhoods required the evacuation of many communities—yet digital notifications to citizens were not issued until hours after the blaze began in many areas leaving some residents already trapped. Even when notifications were eventually sent, far too many citizens did not receive them. 44 people were killed in the wine country fires, leaving many to wonder, what else could have been done?

What Went Wrong? How to Ensure Timely, Targeted Communications.

The Hawaiian error message was sent during a twice-daily test that happens when employees switch shifts. It was reported that an employee accidentally selected a live alert, instead of a test alert during a drill that he mistakenly thought was a real emergency. One simple, unchecked keystroke led to 38-minutes of terror that should have been avoided.

In California, its communication issues involved both the and non-use of its emergency notification systems. In one community, public safety personnel initially chose not to issue warning messages due to a discomfort with its notification system’s targeting functionality and a fear that an evacuation message would lead to mass panic and an eventual traffic jam. In other areas, personnel grappled with messaging and agonized over what to write.

Further complicating safety efforts, the wine country fire warnings were only issued to those citizens who had preregistered to receive messages from their community’s urgent notification system or those residents in the county database. Those who had not preregistered and those traveling through the area, were uninformed, a tragic oversight that could have been avoided if the communities in peril had utilized the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS).

What is FEMA’s IPAWS System, and How Should it be Used?

FEMA’s IPAWS system is designed to help create and distribute local emergency notifications through all the nation’s available alert and warning channels, including:

  • The Emergency alert system (EAS), which broadcasts to AM/FM radios and public televisions.
  • Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) sent to capable wireless devices.
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio alerts
  • Digital signs and other local systems

The only way to access the IPAWS system is by choosing a mass notification solution that is IPAWS integration-approved. Communities that utilize such a solution can amplify their emergency communications and reach as many citizens and travelers as possible during a disaster. Had the California communities been comfortable using an IPAWS-capable system, they could have maximized the reach of their emergency message and expedited timely evacuations.

How to Leverage Your IPAWS-Enabled Mass Communication System Effectively During an Emergency

To avoid an emergency communication miscommunication, follow these best practices:

  • Use a mass notification system that integrates with IPAWS seamlessly and clearly identifies between the Live Alert platform and the Test Alert platform, along with a preview option. This would have helped in the Hawaii situation. It would have been clear that the employee was working in the testing platform that IPAWS offers and a preview the message option is another step before sending that lets the sender verify both the message and the recipients. 
  • Use your mass notification system to set up emergency message templates in advance. In California, time was lost while personnel agonized over how to phrase their emergency message. Create pre-written, disaster-specific messages in advance that will be ready to use at a moment’s notice.
  • Use a system with Geofencing capabilities. In California, emergency personnel struggled to target only impacted areas. A mass notification system with geofencing capabilities allows administrators to establish physical areas as virtual “fences” and target messages to people within those areas, both when they enter the “fence” and when they leave.
  • Put policies and practices in place about when and how to alert. Put policies in place now regarding when to use your alert system, who will have access, what messages should say, and what direction citizens and visitors will be given.
  • Implement regular safety drills. By practicing emergency communication procedures, your staff will be comfortable with your alert system, and citizens will be comfortable with its messages and notification channels. Just be sure that all test messages are clearly labeled to avoid a miscommunication like the one that occurred in Hawaii.
  • Train all personnel on the use of your mass notification system. The last thing you and your staff need during an already stressful situation is to struggle with your communication system. Choose an intuitive notification system but still make sure all essential staff members know how to use it, and that they have permission to access relevant functionality.
  • Implement a dual-sign off emergency communication message. If such a procedure had been in place in Hawaii, one individual would not have been capable of issuing a mass notification in error. Put parameters in place for staff members with proper authority to review test and real alert messages.
  • Ensure your communication system is safeguarded from hackers. Your mass notification solution should be easy to access for authorized personnel only. Make sure your software solution is protected from the threat of hackers looking to create mass chaos.
  • Encourage residents to subscribe to your mass notification system. Choose a system that has an easy-to-use citizen interface that easily lets them sign up to receive notifications from your organization. Depending on the software, citizens can choose how they would like to receive the messages, whether by text, phone, or email. They may also be able to choose a preferred language for received notifications. Citizen subscription rates skyrocketed after the California fires in some counties by people who wanted to stay connected to their county’s communications and emergency alerts. 

Stay Hypervigilant and Prepared

No community can predict a local emergency, but every community should be prepared for one. A mass communication miscommunication will only complicate an already dire situation. By ensuring proper plans and systems are in place, you can keep your citizens safe and informed, no matter when a disaster strikes.

About the Author

Ryan Strait is the product manager for CivicReady. Ryan’s focus is on understanding the communication challenges faced by local governments in times of disaster, and ensuring the CivicReady solution offers the most efficient, and effective capabilities to allow governments to keep citizens safe and informed.

Ryan leads market research initiatives relative to local government mass communications and provides local governments with needs assessments. She also oversees the consistency and quality of all CivicReady product implementations.

Ryan holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration with a major in Marketing from Kansas State University. She has over eight years of experience in marketing and consulting with a focus in mass notification technology.

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