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by Rick Wimberly: Best practices for emergency notification programs

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January 19, 2014

A Washington TV station recently looked at the realities of alerting on a college campus. The News 4 Investigative Team report said it found some area colleges still struggling with alerting students, despite students being connected in so many ways.

The challenges are no different than public safety officials face alerting the general public – getting people to sign up for text alerting. The schools have students email addresses, in fact provide them…but, many students don’t check their email often. So, texting could be a stronger channel.  The station said one local school has an opt-out, rather than opt-in texting system, and others are considering it. However, I wonder how they convince students to provide their cell phone numbers. (One of our consulting clients asks students to sign up when they apply for bus passes, which works quite well.)

The report made a connection between campus alerting and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) for mobile devices, although they got the name wrong. (Hey, folks, it’s not CMAS anymore.)  They said there may be a “silver bullet” via WEA where sign-ups are not required. The problem, they say, is that alerts through the national system would be sent to all of DC.  They may be right, but they also may be wrong. Some carriers send WEA messages to smaller areas. It’s hard to tell who does and where. Regardless, FEMA has started approving colleges as alerting authorities, as long as their states are OK with it. (By the way, Galain has recently announced that it will help colleges or local public safety with the FEMA alerting sign up process at no charge. Send an email to IPAWS@Galainsolutions.com).

The key, we believe, to campus alerting is no different from community alerting. Use as many channels as you can, and make those channels as strong as you can. Also, apply special initiatives and outreach to cover the gaps.

All the best,

Rick

Galain Solutions, Inc.

 


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January 15, 2014

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has fined Turner Broadcasting $200,000 for "willfully and repeatedly" violating regulations concerning Emergency Alert System (EAS) tones.  The offending instances were in a commercial on the Adult Swim Network advertising a record by rap artist A$AP Rock being sold at Best Buy.

Turner said the commercial did not actually contain EAS codes, but rather a "sound effect".  The FCC said it doesn't matter, the sounds were "substantially similar" to EAS tones and regulations prohibit simulations of EAS tones for purposes other than the emergency system.  The Commission said airing the commercials amounted to "false distress signals" in violation of federal law.

The FCC says Turner apparently reviewed and approved the commercial before it aired, and noted that Turner claimed that it changed its process for looking for such things a year earlier after complaints about airing an EAS-sounding tone in a promotion for The Conan Show.

FCC regulations call for a minimum fine of $8,000.  However, the FCC felt $200,000 was a more appropriate fine.  Said the Commission in its order which can be found here, the fine was "based on the number of transmissions at issue, the amount of time over which the transmissions took place, the nationwide scope of Adult Swim Network's audience reach, Turner's degree of cupability, Turner's ability to pay, and the serious public safety implication of the violations".

Best,

Rick

Galain Solutions, Inc.


1 comment
January 14, 2014

We'll confess.  We're excited about 2014 for alerts and notifications. There are important things that have been developing for years that could really develop this year into important and meaningful tools. Let’s take a look:

IPAWS: In 2013, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) produced the first clear signs that it can help save lives. In 2014, more local authorities will get IPAWS alerting capability for themselves, just as the National Weather Service and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children have…both with impressive results.

Meantime, the public will become more accustomed to receiving IPAWS alerts through the national mobile alerting system Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA).

And, maybe, just maybe, Congress will wake up to the values of IPAWS, pass legislation that codifies IPAWS, and allocates appropriate funds for IPAWS outreach, development of the practice of alerts and warnings, and infrastructure enhancement.

Vendor Technology: It seems that leading vendors are getting more inventive and creative. They must. Competition is tough; buyers are smart. And, even though funds are tight, organizations are still buying. Rarely a day goes by without announcements about purchases by local authorities, schools and universities, and the private sector. This will encourage innovation.

Addressing Real Needs:  There's a need to recognize what really makes alerting successful.  It spans well beyond technology.  Perhaps there could be nice movement on that front this year.  Wade Witmer, Deputy IPAWS Director, recently posted on LinkedIn in a discussion about the viability of IPAWS, "We are always seeking comment and ideas that can improve alert and warning, and not just technology, but also practice, procedure or science that helps to effectively help local authorities save people from disaster."  

Meantime, Galain is conducting a survey to help identify the needs, then will publish a series of documents on the top ones.  Please complete the survey and pass it around.  It won't take five minutes, and you can find it here.  When it's published, the series will be made available at no charge to anyone who wants it.

Social media: Something big is bound to happen. Someone somewhere is going to figure out how to really use social media to get people’s attention when an emergency is occurring. Our friend Art Botterell says 2014 will be the year that alerting really goes peer-to-peer. He cites examples like Waze and Inrix, which fuse traffic information shared by peers. The same could be done for emergencies. Besides, says Art, “seems like faith in ‘the responsible authorities’ is getting harder to sell all the time”.

Broadcast Alerting: Radio and TV have the oldest tradition of organized alerting in the US, going back to their early days. The tradition will continue to get stronger. The Emergency Alert System (EAS) has now been tested nationally, vulnerabilities have been exposed, and addressed. Plus, broadcasters will continue to chip away to make FM chips in mobile devices mandatory, in part to support EAS. Sprint recently started adding FM chips to mobile devices. Others could follow. And, I think in 2014, more broadcasters will realize how to work with other alerting tools, like WEA. They may as well talk about WEA. Their audiences will be.

IPAWS Public Feed: Back to IPAWS, there’s a little known capability of IPAWS that should start taking form in 2014. It’s a feed of IPAWS alerts that can be picked up by virtually anything that can be turned into an alert disseminator. For example, digital sign systems could pick up IPAWS alerts, then relay them. Websites could add alerts to their capabilities by picking up IPAWS feeds. Devices that serve people with disabilities could pick up the feeds. And, the list goes on. Use your imagination.

Wireless Emergency Alerts Evolve: As WEA alerts make their mark, limits have become more exposed. The two primary ones: 90 character limit, and geographic targeting. The committee that made the rules for WEA (then, CMAS) has started looking at both limits, and perhaps something will come out of that effort in 2014.

Higher Education: Colleges and universities are going to get, well, smarter about alerts and warnings. After the Virginia Tech shooting, many rushed out to beef up their text alerting, apparently thinking that was the best route to go. Nothing wrong with text alerting, as long as it’s only one of the channels being used. More schools will be closely assessing the channels they’re using and the, what we call with our clients, the “signal strength” of channels. Also, we believe colleges and universities should be looking at ways “intelligent notifications” can help manage their responses, in addition to alerting their communities.

So, you see, lots to be excited about in 2014. Now, I admit, there’s a bit of optimism in this post, maybe even some wishful thinking. But, strong pressures exist that will help make 2014 a year of enhancement for alerts, warnings, and notifications. We’re excited to be a part of it.

All the best, and have a great 2014!

Rick

Galain Solutions, Inc.


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January 14, 2014

FEMA has withdrawn the Request for Information (RFI) through which they were seeking possible commercial sources for the infrastructure on which the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) operates.  No reason was given, but FEMA indicates the RFI will be re-issued.

The RFI had caused some confusion.  IPAWS has many stakeholders and partners who have invested lots of time and money to work with IPAWS.  Broadcasters updated their equipment for the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and the wireless carriers modified infrastructures for the national cell broadcast alert system, Wireless Emergency Alerts.  No surprise that they were concerned when they saw the RFI.

IPAWS Director Antwane Johnson assured the partners and stakeholders that IPAWS was not seeking to replace or outsource IPAWS services, and that no changes were planned for the inputs and outputs the stakeholders and partners work with.  (See earlier post.)  Cancellation of the RFI makes that clear.

All the best,

Rick

Galain Solutions, Inc.

 

 

 


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January 12, 2014

Today (Monday) is the anniversary of the AMBER Alert program.  It was 18 years ago when AMBER Alert was created in Texas after nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was kidnapped and murdered.  Results have been amazing.  Hundreds of children across the country have been returned to safety as a direct result of AMBER Alerts (officially, America's Missing:  Broadcast Emergency Response).

Emergency managers and the alerting industry should be proud of the roles they've played in AMBER Alerts.  The program is getting stronger every day.  Broadcasters continue to play a vital and growing part, and the mobile carriers are now helping through Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA).  

Although there are many parts to AMBER Alerts, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children takes the lead, and does an excellent job.

All the best,

Rick

Galain Solutions, Inc.


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January 10, 2014

A few weeks ago, FEMA and DHS published a Request for Information (RFI) for possibly outsourcing data services for the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).  (See our earlier post here.)  Strong language was used expressing concern for the infrastructure on which IPAWS works.  At least one of the web postings, which was shared by others, misinterpretted the RFI and stated, "Federal emergemncy managers are considering replacing their current custom-built system for notifying the public about emergencies...".

Antwane Johnson, the IPAWS Director, has assured IPAWS stakeholders that "the IPAWS Program is not seeking to replace or outsource IPAWS services".  Instead, it's the IT infrastructure that supports IPAWS being looked at, not IPAWS services.

The infrastructure is managed by FEMA's Office of the Chief Information Officer.  The CIO's office wants to make sure the infrastructure "is robust, reliable and economical".  Thus, the reason for the RFI - to see if commercial sources are available that could help the infrastructure.  

Johnson wants to assure IPAWS stakeholders that IPAWS does not anticipate the need to make changes to the alert system's input or output interfaces that stakeholders use to make the system work.

Well, we could certainly see why stakeholders would be concerned.  Many of them have invested significant time and money to make IPAWS work.  A major change would not sit well with them.  But, it seems a major change is not in the works. Stakeholders should keep an eye open, but not panic.  Keep moving forward. 

Besides, in our opinion, the proof is in the pudding.  IPAWS may not be perfect, but success stories are accumulating about lives being saved and children being found because of IPAWS alerts, including the national mobile alert system Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) and enhanced Emergency Alert System (EAS).  

It is refreshing that the CIO's office is looking for a stronger infrastructure for IPAWS, including looking at the commercial world for "mature commercial software solutions" and "commercial hosting solutions" with ability to reliably host IPAWS.  Not a bad thing at all, including for the stakeholders.  In fact, the stronger the infrastructure, the better service to the stakeholders and the American public.

All the best,

Rick

Galain Solutions, Inc.

 


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December 27, 2013

The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) again took the top positions in alerting stories of the year. The news was both good and bad.

1.  The good news (and it’s very good news) is that the IPAWS Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system created impressive success stories by helping save lives and finding missing children. National Public Radio aired a segment where a minister in Illinois told of his congregation receiving tornado warnings on their mobile devices via WEA. 400 worshipers were led to shelter, avoiding an overpassing tornado. The minister called the alerts “the saving grace”.  (See earlier post here.)

This is progress, real progress. Meantime, impressive stories were told of children being safely recovered based on information from AMBER Alerts issued through WEA.

We could probably stop here because no other alerting development during the year came near the magnitude of IPAWS success stories. But, we’ll go on…

2. The bad news about IPAWS is that serious concerns have surfaced about its technical infrastructure. FEMA is so concerned that they have publicly stated that IPAWS cannot be supported by the existing FEMA and DHS infrastructures, and the risk of the architecture is “too great for IPAWS and our nation”. On the plus side, FEMA is trying to do something about it. They recently released a Request for Information to hunt for commercially available solutions. (See our post here.)

Other bad IPAWS news relates to the level of funding. Despite the demonstrated successes, the program is funded at around $10,000,000 per year…not much for an initiative with such a clear return in saving lives, protecting resources, and saving local communities money. Plus, IPAWS still exists because of an old Presidential Executive Order, and not law set by Congress. A couple of pieces of legislation are in play to correct this, but funding could still be a big issue. We now know that serious infrastructure concerns exist, and outreach has been very limited. There are still key stakeholders and the public who aren’t aware of what IPAWS can do for them.

3. Meantime, local communities continue to work toward enhancing their own alerting efforts. Despite the availability of the WEA cell broadcast alert system at virtually no cost, locals seem to understand that WEA and other IPAWS initiatives only complement their existing efforts.

4. That’s the good news. The bad news is that local communities still struggle to get the public to sign up for alerting initiatives. The most successful sign-up program we’ve seen this year is a client who asked people to register for alerts at the same time they were signing up for something else they needed. People need to be nudged to sign up, and it must be convenient. We don’t think the public is hesitant to sign up, just not motivated to do it…until something bad happens or creative encouragement is used.

5. The Emergency Alert System (EAS) made news in 2013. Again, there was good and bad. The good was expressed in an FCC report that said EAS is “basically sound”. The bad came from a zombie attack announced via EAS by someone who hacked into a TV station’s EAS system and issued a phony alert. As it turns out, there were no zombies and the vulnerability was quickly discovered and fixed.

There was other good/bad news on EAS in 2013. The good was the beginning of the discussion about how WEA can complement emergency communications efforts of radio and TV stations. Even though WEA comes from broadcasters’ competitors in the cell industry, the two can work together as evidenced in a webinar we co-produced showing the synergy. (See our earlier post here, which includes a link to the short webinar.)  The bad news is that, still, many broadcasters don’t see why it’s in their best interests to tout WEA on the air. Perhaps progress can be made in 2014.

6. There seems to have been progress during the year on alerting people with disabilities. Of most significance was a report from Wireless RERC (Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center) at Georgia Tech that showed which communications channels are preferred by people with disabilities for receiving, confirming, and sharing public alerts. TV was at the top of the list. Most interesting, however, was that text messaging moved from sixth place in 2011 to second place in 2013. Email was third. A phone call was forth. The good news is that all four of these channels are getting stronger every day. Meantime, FEMA recently awarded a contract to Wireless RERC to go deeper into alerting people with disabilities.

7. In a related development in 2013, FEMA released a paper called “Alerting the Whole community: Removing Barriers to Alerting Accessibility”. It showed how IPAWS addresses the challenge of reaching what FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate likes to call the “Whole Community”. The paper can be found here on the FEMA website.  (In the interest of full disclosure, we must report that we helped FEMA prepare the report.)

8. Twitter got into the alerting business in 2013, and launched Twitter Alerts. Certain organizations can sign up to offer their followers alerting capability through Twitter. As you would expect considering the source, the announcement generated a lot of buzz. We signed up for alerts from several organizations (FEMA, Red Cross, DHS), but it appears we get all of their Tweets, not just alerts. You can read about Twitter Alerts from our post here.  Or, go to the Twitter Alerts blog.

9. Back to IPAWS, there were significant changes in Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) in 2013. First of all, Wireless Emergency Alerts became the official name of the initiative, as opposed to the earlier name of Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS). Secondly, the organization that supports the wireless industry indicated changes are ahead.  In Congressional testimony, Christopher Guttman-McCabb of CTIA-The Wireless Association said the FCC council that proposed rules for WEA (then CMAS) will look at other changes. The 90 character message limit and ability to more precisely target alerts are expected to be discussed. See our post here.

10. Colleges and universities made nice progress getting their alerting acts together. Many seem to have adjusted their initial reaction to Virginia Tech of rushing out to rely on text systems to alert. Now, a more comprehensive approach with use of more channels seems to be the norm. Plus, the texting offerings have improved, thanks to creative vendors who have figured out how to get special provisions for emergency alerts.

It was a rather eventful year, with nice progress made.  Yet, some of the nagging questions remain. Like, how do you get people to sign up? How do you sort through the maze of vendor offerings? How do you ensure that your alerting initiative goes beyond technology and really delivers success? How do you pay for your alerting program? How do you help the public understand what you’re doing for alerting and what they need to do about it? How do you keep up with changing communications preferences? And, I could go on.

Finally, thanks to all who’ve made this another successful year for Galain – our clients, our consultants, our staff, our friends, our families and our colleagues who, whether they realize it or not, constantly keep us engaged and moving forward.

Happy New Year, and watch for our upcoming post looking ahead at the new year.

Rick

Galain Solutions, Inc.


2 comments
December 23, 2013

Saying the risk of the current architecture is "too great for IPAWS and our nation", FEMA is asking for help to strengthen the technical infrastructure supporting the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).  FEMA says the risks could contribute to an event with "a disasterous impact with unimaginable local, regional or national consequences".  FEMA says the current system has "actually disabled IPAWS's responsivement and flexibility at times and prevented IPAWS from carrying out its mission" of ensuring the President can alert the American people and supporting federal, state, and local warning needs.

The strong, candid language is contained within a Request for Information (RFI) FEMA issued to find "best methods for providing a highly reliable and highly available application and data center services" supporting IPAWS.  The RFI states IPAWS cannot be supported by the existing FEMA and DHS infrastructures.  So, FEMA wants to know if there are "mature commercial software solutions" and "commercial hosting solutions" with ability to reliably host IPAWS.  

The serious concerns about the infrastructure are released at the end of a year when IPAWS created a number of success stories.  The Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, a part of IPAWS, has been credited with saving lives and finding missing children through its ability to send emergency text messages to mobile devices.  Other IPAWS programs include the Emergency Alert System (EAS), the national radio/TV alerting system.

All the best,

Rick

 

 

 

 


1 comment
December 01, 2013

You would think that a world where people are so accessible through so many communications channels would be a world where emergency alerts and mass notifications would be simple.  Not so.  In fact, because people are so accessible has made emergency alerts and mass notifications more complicated.  All types of questions abound like, how do we...

  • select communications channels?
  • make the public aware of how they're going to be alerted?
  • help the public understand what to do when they're alerted?
  • make sure we're using the right vendors?
  • manage this maze effectively when an emergency is at hand?
  • make sure the whole community, including people with disabilities, limited English proficiency and older adults, are alerted?
  • pay for all of this?

And, we could go on.  

We're curious about which topics surrounding this maze are really the most important and interesting to you.  In other words, which ones would we all benefit by having more information on?  So, we're conducting a survey and are asking for your help by completing the survey at this link.  When we get the results, we're going to publish here and elsewhere, a five part informational series on the topics you've chosen.  It will be available to, well, anyone who wants it with no obligation.

The survey won't take but a very few minutes.  (We promise.)  And, you'll see that there's a place where you can add topics of your own that we've not listed.  And, please, feel free to pass it along to anyone else who you think would like to have input.

We're committed to stronger alerts for stronger communities, and hope that, with your assistance, this informational series will help get us closer.

All the best,

Rick

Galain Solutions, Inc.

 


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November 19, 2013

When major storms hit the Midwest Sunday morning, the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system sprang into action issuing mass notification cell phone text alerts from the National Weather Service.  Eight people were killed, but media reports say many have expressed "shock" that the death toll wasn't higher.  The WEA messages to cell devices are being credited, along with early forecasting by the National Weather Service.

National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" aired a segment this morning (Tuesday) featuring a Methodist minister in Illinois telling the story of his congregation receiving the alerts during service.  He said, "Suddenly, everybody's cell phones started buzzing at the same time."  When the alerts were issued, the minister said he and other staff herded about 400 worshipers to a storm shelter room.  They heard the locomotion sounding tornado pass over, destroying buildings only yards away.  No one at the church was hurt.  The pastor called the alert, "the saving grace".  (You can hear the NPR report here.)

Enough said.

Rick

 

 


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