The article raises questions many emergency mangers face as they evaluate what to implement with regards to public warning systems. No one in public safety wants to waste taxpayer dollars, yet the public expects to be protected in a crisis. What is a conscientious emergency manager to do?
We don't have all the answers, but here are a few thoughts that come to mind after reading the article.
We must prepare for events that may not happen. Emergency managers are trained to deal with and prepare for the unthinkable. You've all received training and developed contingency plans you hope will never actually be needed. Sure the public may have a hard time understanding why money is spent on systems that have not been used in decades. However, under the right circumstances these sirens could save lives and property. The public certainly expects every effort will be made to protect them in a crisis, and systems like this may help achieve this goal.
"Contextual" alerts may work best for methods such as sirens. The challenge of traditional sirens is no content on the nature of the alert is conveyed during an alert. Loud tones do not convey anything specifically and it is easy for the public to ignore the warnings (in San Francisco's case, the sirens actually function as a public address system, though this is frequently not the case across the country). According to the article:
"When a siren goes off, instead of panicking or seeking out more information most people tend to behave with indifference and assume that the siren went off at the wrong time," says Dennis Mileti, director emeritus of the Natural Hazards Center at Colorado State University."
I haven't seen the research on this, but I suspect sirens dedicated to a specific type of alert (contextual alert) will be more effective than a generic "all hazards" alert. In our part of the country, for example, tornadoes are fairly frequent weather events. Our town has sirens in place activated when a tornado warning is issued. People are aware of these and know to tune to media when they go off (unless it's a beautiful sunny day when they're testing them). These are known locally as "tornado sirens" and are taken rather seriously. If these sirens were not tied to this specific emergency situation, I believe their effectiveness would be diminished.
No one notification method works universally. Every form of public notification has its unique strengths and weaknesses. No single method will reach everyone. As such, emergency managers need to deploy multiple methods and systems for alerting the public. In San Francisco's case, they have mobile device alerting, they interact with the media, and the sirens are not simply tone-alerts, but also double as public address systems. Some are appropriate for almost daily use, others will be reserved only for the most dire circumstances. Good notification programs include a variety of methods to insure as wide a coverage as possible.
The article on San Francisco's sirens highlights a clear challenge of balancing investment versus preparation. What are your thoughts and experiences dealing with sirens and trade-offs between investments in the various alerting options? We'd love to hear from you.
Galain Solutions, Inc. provides consulting services for public safety agencies selecting and implementing emergency notification systems. For more information, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.