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by Rick Wimberly: Best practices for emergency notification programs

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April 17, 2014

There's some serious finger pointing going on over failure of an alert system to notify residents of the Portland neighborhood of a gunman on the loose.  The City of Portland tried to send out a message, but an old message was sent out instead.

Carmen Merlo, Director of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management is quoted in The Oregonian as saying the failure was "completely inexcusable" and the fault of the vendor.  Matt Teague, President of FirstCall, says it was not his company's fault, but a user error.  Merlo says the problem was "completely on the vendor."

Of course, we have no way to know who's at fault.  But, does this really have to be played out in the media?  I can't imagine residents of Portland feel good about it, and I doubt they really care who's fault it was.  They just want it right.

All the best,


Galain Solutions, Inc.

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March 27, 2014

A House sub-committee has approved legislation designed to strengthen IPAWS.  The "Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Modernization Act of 2013" includes a sweeping description of what IPAWS should become, some of which is underway.  

New aspects of the legislation include creation of an IPAWS Modernization Advisory Committee to advise the Department of Homeland Security.  The bill also directs:

  • establishment or adaptions of standards and operating procedures
  • inclusion of capability to alert people with disabilities
  • assurace that training, tests, and exercises will be held
  • incorporation of public alerting training into the National Incident Management System

The bill, approved by the Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications, also authorizes expenditures of up to $13,400,000 for IPAWS.

More House committee work to be done before the bill goes to the Senate.

All the best,


Galain Solutions, Inc.


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March 19, 2014

Hit-and-run alerts may join the likes of AMBER Alerts, Silver Alerts, and emergency alerts in Colorado.  The legislature has passed a law that creates a system through which broadcasters will issue alerts to help find suspects after a death or serious bodily injury.

They call it the Medina Alert program, named in memory of Jose Medina, a young man killed by a hit-and-run driver a couple of years ago.

The alert program is voluntary for broadcasters.  The bill is awaiting the governor's signature.



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March 11, 2014

Some media have been talking about glitches and bumps around the rollout of the cell phone alerting system in Washington state. It seems that while the new system has helped locate at least two missing children as a result of Amber Alerts, it has also mistakenly alerted people of blizzards and flash floods that were not in their immediate area.

The confusion is certainly understandable. Someone living in a highland area won’t be affected by coastal flooding, and they probably won’t be appreciative of being jolted awake in the middle of the night by an alert that they feel is irrelevant.

However, the fact remains that there is bound to be overlap when it comes to alerting via cell towers, and this is why it’s vitally important to educate communities and consumers not just about the system itself, but also about how it works. Ultimately, the receipt of too many irrelevant alert messages may convince cell phone users to opt out of receiving alerts… unless they are educated about the bigger picture.

While many feel justifiable in complaining about a 3am tornado warning that is irrelevant to where they live and sleep, no one could possibly argue effectively against the value of such an alert to the people who are in the path of the storm. The bigger picture message is one that needs to be repeated often, before, during, and yes, even after successful alerting system rollouts.

All the best,


Galain Solutions, Inc.

March 06, 2014

Admittedly, we normally use this blog to discuss how to reach communities during emergencies. However, a patent filed by Apple Inc yesterday caught our eye with the idea that a smartphone could be used to detect emergency situations and automatically alert authorities.

According to the abstract filed with the US Patent & Trademark office and brought to our eye by Gizmodo, the Mobile Emergency Attack and Failsafe Detection would allow a smartphone to be configured to send out a call for help by placing the device into “attack detection mode.” While in this mode, the idea is that certain events would trigger a pre-defined response. For example, if the device’s accelerometer detected a sudden shock (ie, came to an abrupt halt after, say, moving at 80mph along a highway), the device could place an automatic phone call to emergency services and, theoretically, using GPS, provide coordinates for location.

In another example, if the mobile device is dropped suddenly and does not quickly regain contact with the users fingers on the screen, it can be configured to emit a loud alarm to attract help from others who may be nearby, or it can switch to microphone to detect calls for help and then place a call to authorities automatically, again providing valuable location information.

Of course, filing a patent does not mean that Apple is ready to build this functionality into their phones immediately, but the fact that the idea is already out there is certainly noteworthy from an “automatic emergency alerting” point of view.

All the best,



Galain Solutions, Inc.


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February 16, 2014

Routine testing of an emergency notification system is a necessary component of any solid emergency preparedness program. And when done properly, test calls are not only useful in determining the validity of the contact numbers in your database, they can also be a useful tool in promoting awareness of the notification system. Atlantic County, NJ, recently tested their newly updated system, and are reporting 64% delivery success. Not too bad. But even better for Atlantic County is that in the days following their announcement of their successful test call, they received nearly 800 new registered numbers.

Stories like this are excellent reminders of the value of careful testing, however it is critically important to pay attention to your testing protocols and procedures. In a careless attempt to test their notification system, the police department in Schaumburg, IL, pushed a test message declaring an emergency situation requiring schools to initiate lockdown… without indicating that the test message was only a test. As a result, Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 locked down all their schools on Tuesday morning.

School district spokeswoman, Terri McHugh, was reported as stating that the schools were notified of the mistake within two minutes of the initial alert, and that the overall experience should be thought of as a “useful test of each school’s own emergency procedures.”

It’s fortunate that the incident in Schaumburg was rectified quickly without serious consequences, however we are going to use this as a reminder of the importance of mindfulness when it comes to the responsibility of managing an alerting system. If you’re not paying attention, your credibility can be impaired. And, as public safety officials and alerting authorities, your credibility is key.

All the best,


Galain Solutions, Inc.

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February 11, 2014

The ability for government agencies to deliver more targeted alerts and notifications to mobile devices provides a strong communication channel that's effective for a very mobile population. However, while smartphones allow an unprecedented level of access to a variety of notification and communication channels, it is still important to consider the accessibility of the smartphone itself. There are entire populations and groups of people who simply cannot afford the technology required to both receive, and in some cases interpret, emergency information pushed to mobile devices.

In an effort to better understand accessibility, Douglas County, IL and Palm Coast, FL are participating in a University of Missouri-Columbia research project regarding emergency tornado notification. The project, set to start this week, seeks to determine what socioeconomic and demographic differences exist in the way people receive and react to tornado notifications. Stephanie Meyers is running the project.  She works at the Emergency Communications Network, and the study is part of her advanced studies at University of Missouri.  She says these two communities were chosen based on several factors:

1. they utilize CodRED, which allows an agency point of contact
2. they were affected by a late-season storm (which means they will remember how they were notified, as opposed to asking people for information about a storm that occurred years ago).
3. the storm must have been reported and confirmed as a tornado by the NWS.

Douglas County Emergency Management Agency Director, Joe Victor, said the County will use the survey results to not only educate residents about the existence of the system, but also for information on how they might improve their notification system in general.

All the best,


Galain Solutions, Inc.


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February 11, 2014

A comprehensive emergency notification policy will strive to push emergency information through as many channels as possible. On a college campus, the channel that springs to mind most quickly, perhaps, is the one that pushes notifications to students via mobile devices. 

But what if professors make students turn off their devices when they enter class?  Or what if students aren't even allowed in academic buildings at all?

The ability of a cellphone to disrupt and distract is undeniable, and as a result, many schools, campuses, and professors have policies prohibiting their use during class. While most schools appear to have etiquette policies in place asking students to simply “silence your cell phone” (which would still allow a Wireless Emergency Alert to be heard and other messages to flash on a screen), there are some schools, such as Wyoming Catholic College that have banned cell phones entirely (indeed, Wyoming Catholic College asks students to forgo Internet and television in dorm rooms as well).

While we are not proposing to debate that students, and perhaps adults too, should be a little less “connected” during the day, we are asking you to consider whether your campus cell phone policy could conflict with your emergency alerting plans. It’s a useful discussion that needs to happen. Using lots of channels will help.

All the best,


Galain Solutions, Inc.

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January 28, 2014

The severity of winter this year has provided ample opportunity for many communities across the country to flex their alert and warning muscle. School and work closures, travel advisories, flight cancellations, and weather updates are just a few of the many alerts and informative messages that have been pushed to affected areas over the last few weeks.

Obviously, while we can’t control the course of weather systems, it is no secret that information and proper preparation can minimize damage and impact.

Several notification providers have reported significant spikes in activity as the East Coast gets hammered by record-breaking cold temperatures and snow.  Emergency Communications Network (ECN) says they have already had their third “1 million call day” this year. W.A.R.N Systems reports increased use of automated notification in the south for multi-jurisdictional coordination of winter weather activities.

SendWordNow has published a white paper on winter weather, encouraging readers to avoid notification mistakes in the winter weather. Our favorites:

1. slow response team coordination
2. having limited multi-modal alerting capabilities
3. treating notifications as a one-way street
4. failing to prepare for inbound communications

Keeping communities informed, and using notification systems to mobilize resources and coordinate response efforts, is quite simply a great way to enhance public safety on many levels.

And, it is important at this time to remember that multimodal approaches to notification are key in terms of getting information out to as many people as possible. The more channels one has, the more likely the messages will be received. Of course, the trick is still getting people to opt into notification programs, but this winter is definitely doing its part to provide incentive and motivation!

Freezing in Tennessee,



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January 21, 2014

The United Kingdom has begun testing a mobile device alerting system, similar to the one in the U.S.  Several trials are being conducted in a partnership with the British government, cell carriers, and public safety.  The UK is looking at two methods of a national system.  One is cell broadcast texting, similar to the one in the US.  The other is uses SMS, which is a more traditional way of sending personal texts.

A report is to be issued by the British government in 2014.  Here's a link to the government's summary.



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