Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

New Alerting Channels Have Proliferated But Challenges Remain

What about alerting standards, legacy alerting and risks?

Communication methods

Never before have there been so many options for alerting the public. In the last few months alone potential for new alerting channels has been unleashed for complementing an already growing array of channels. Names like Google, Twitter, Facebook and the Weather Channel have entered the alerting field. Legacy vendors have enhanced their offerings. The federal government now has impressive alerting success stories to tout. An industry and practice area that once seemed sleepy is wide awake. At the same time, new complexities and challenges have shown themselves.

As part of the move toward ubiquitous alerting, an organization is working to turn online advertisements into emergency alerts. Members of the Federation for Internet Alerts (FIA) are substituting “interest-based advertising” with targeted alerts. Interest-based ads are the ones you see online that know what you’ve been looking for by using Web cookies or mobile service identifiers left behind when you conduct a search or visit a site. Through the FIA plan, interest-based ads would be replaced with emergency alerts for a specific geographic area. The FIA’s Jason Bier, chief privacy officer at the company Conversant, said through a pilot, Amber Alert messages have been exposed via 500 million “impressions” to more than 100 million devices.


Major Web Companies Join Alerting


In the meantime, companies with strong online reach are getting into alerting. The Weather Company, which runs the Weather Channel, is working on an interface that would give local public safety officials the ability to send alerts via its various properties. They include the Weather Channel’s weather app, which the company says is the top weather app on iPhones and iPads. Jason Geer, the Weather Channel’s product management director, said public safety officials will be able to use the interface to send alerts for any type of emergency.

The largest social media companies are also alerting. Google offers its public alerts tool where alerts from several countries, including the U.S., are displayed on maps. The alerts originate from such organizations as the National Weather Service and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Google is looking for more organizations to provide alerts.

Twitter also has an alerting tool, called Twitter Alerts. Public safety and other organizations can sign up to tweet alerts, and the public can sign up to receive the tweeted alerts.

Facebook recently announced its own version of alerts. As one might expect from Facebook, it’s more of a friend-to-friend communication tool. Facebook Safety Check is a series of shortcuts to help indicate an individual’s status during an emergency. In a major emergency, Facebook will push out a question to people in the affected area to encourage them to mark their well-being status. The social platform will then push out a notification to users to inform them that their friends in the affected area are safe.

Many public safety agencies have made it standard practice to push alerts through their own social media networks and websites. Several companies help facilitate the process through their content management tools. 

Alerts via digital signs are beginning to spread to places like small businesses, churches and nonprofit organizations. Spectacular Media recently released software to enable its digital sign customers to receive alerts via the national alerting system Integrated Public Alerts and Warnings (IPAWS). Scott Hofheins, special ops Texas director of Spectacular Media, said 10 to 20 customers are enabling the alert capability each day.

Digital signs have been used for alerting on college campuses for several years. “Using digital signage to display full-screen alert messages not only expands the reach of an emergency notification but also provides a visual means through which to reach individuals who may be deaf or hard of hearing,” said Jamie Underwood, director of marketing for Alertus Technologies. 

Interest in earthquake warnings has intensified in recent months. The Conan O’Brien TV show performed a comedy skit on what people would do with 10 seconds of warning that the ground was about to shake from an earthquake. The company mentioned in the skit, Earthquake Warning Labs, has developed an app that provides warnings to the public as the first tremors are detected.

“Earthquakes are not like any other natural disaster,” said Scott Nebenzahl, director of government affairs for Seismic Warning Systems. “Time is not available.” His company is focused on delivering alerts to specific controlled environments (such as schools) that can react quickly while automatically triggering actions that can reduce or eliminate delays in response and recovery. Examples include opening fire station bay doors when an earthquake alert is received so equipment can be quickly moved to a safe location to await dispatch.

Some people have started talking about using the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) national cell broadcast system for earthquake alerts, but a direct link would be needed between seismic detection systems and the WEA system. Plus, the attention-getting tones may need to be shortened.

Discussion has only just begun in earnest, according to Nebenzahl. “There is much to study and validate to make earthquake warnings specific, directive and automated prior to the shaking.”


Legacy Alerting Is Still Needed


With new alerting channels becoming available, what about legacy channels like sirens, automated telephone calls and the Emergency Alert System (EAS)? “They remain vital,” said Antwane Johnson of FEMA’s IPAWS. “We need to use whatever technology is available.” 

Dave DiGiacomo, president of Emergency Communications Network, acknowledged that older people communicate differently than younger people. “This makes all legacy modes and new means of communications equally important when you are alerting for the masses.”

Jeff Benanto, senior manager of marketing communications for Everbridge, said his company doesn’t even consider telephone or text as legacy. “They are too important to any campaign or critical communications strategy to ever lose relevance.”

EAS is the grandfather of legacy alerting. IPAWS has been working with stakeholders to strengthen EAS. The national system for relaying alerts among radio and TV has been digitized and modernized: primary relay points were hardened; the first national EAS test was conducted; new national EAS alert codes were implemented; and a national advertising campaign was activated.

Security vulnerabilities have also been exposed, although not without pain. The Bobby Bones syndicated radio show recently activated the EAS in several states during a morning broadcast. And someone hacked a Montana TV station’s EAS system in 2013 and sent out a zombie attack alert, which was relayed to other stations. EAS participants (radio, TV, cable, satellite broadcast), equipment manufacturers, FEMA and the FCC are addressing security issues.

Growth of capability for cellphones to receive FM radio broadcasts could help support the legacy EAS. Whit Adamson, president of the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, said, “While radio isn’t seeking a government-mandated FM chip in phones, broadcasters think during a worst-case-scenario emergency it will become a valuable mobile information addition to the EAS messages sent by radio and TV.” He added that it’s a matter of educating the public on what the old timers knew as transistor radios.


The Power of Standards


If one event could be credited with opening alert channels, it would be widespread adoption of the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) standard, which created a single language that all types of channels could use.

Art Botterell, president of Incident.com, has been the key architect of CAP since its birth. He said CAP has been a philosophical achievement as much as a technical one. “Applying the principles of interoperability to our mission-critical communications with the public seemed obvious, but it needed to be demonstrated in practice in a tangible way.” Botterell said it’s a credit to industry and responsible warning issuers that they’ve been able to “see past traditional business conventions and grasp the network economics of systems that actually become more beneficial as they become more interconnected.”

Johnson of IPAWS is proud of FEMA’s role in advancing the CAP standard, but said there’s still work that needs to be done. “Unless we are looking toward the future where standards can bring about even greater sharing and leveraging, we’re going to become irrelevant and technology will pass us by,” he said. “We need to be doing research and development, and forecasting about what’s going to be available.”

Ted Milburn, vice president of Eaton’s Cooper Notification, agrees. He said the concept of integrating a wide range of alerting channels has been struggling to catch on, partly because there are no specific codes beyond the National Fire Code that demand it. “Everyone is taking a different approach.”


Enter Complexity


With new alerting opportunities and demands come new challenges and complexities. Johnson said the IPAWS team noticed at a recent conference of the International Association of Emergency Managers that most of the alerting conversation had turned from curiosity about IPAWS to questions about managing alerting initiatives in a new environment.

Public safety agencies find themselves with alerting gaps, outdated technology and a demanding public with constantly changing communications habits. Risks lie in four general areas:

Technology: Alerting technology on hand may be nearing the end of its life cycle requiring investments in new or updated technologies, different approaches and perhaps outside guidance. Practitioners will need to explore minimal or no-cost alerting opportunities. At the same time, they’ll need to prepare arguments that funds will be needed to support legacy alerting channels and cope with challenges of adapting to the public’s ever-changing communications habits.

Acquisition: Public safety agencies will need to clearly understand the needs of their community and other stakeholders, then carefully sort through vendor claims from a growing and more complicated marketplace.

Operations: As alerting channels are added, dedicated efforts will be needed to ensure that operating procedures are simple, quick and clear. Multiple, separate processes can’t bog down alert activation. Emergency Communications Network’s DiGiacomo said making the complex simple is one of the most exciting enhancements in his company’s offerings. “It’s of great importance the systems used to access these communications channels are simple and efficient for not only the system administrator but the end recipient of the delivered message,” he said.

Other vendors also provide solutions that can centralize activation of multiple channels of alerts. Alertus, for example, offers a “panic button” where either a computer screen or physical button can be set up for a single motion activation of multiple channels. Consultants and integrators are also available to help.

Stakeholder engagement may be the most challenging piece of the emergency alerting puzzle. Even with growing accessibility to alerts, most channels require the public to take some type of action to receive them. Despite strong and creative efforts, sign-up rates for receiving alerts remain very low. At the same time, public expectations are high.

In this day of instant access to information, the idea that everyone will be effectively alerted during an emergency could be taken for granted. But the public’s communication habits are very complicated and diverse with no signs of the communications evolution subsiding — technology and personal habit changes will ensure so. Challenges will become more acute for alerting segments of the population, such as people with disabilities or difficulty with English. While a potential asset in an emergency, social media will make accurate, clear and fast communication by official sources even more important. Operational demands will get tougher. Human behavior factors won’t go away. Alerting mistakes will continue to be very transparent and potentially life threatening. This is no time for complacency, but a time to rethink alerting approaches, invest, seize opportunities and plan for the future.

Rick Wimberly is the president of Galain Solutions, a consultancy dedicated to alerting and notifications. The company recently published the white paper Emergency Alerting Consultants.

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