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by Rick Wimberly: Best practices for emergency notification programs

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September 26, 2013

Twitter has announced that it is offering a new service through which the public can get alerts from federal, state, and local organizations.  It's really quite simple.  Government organizations can enroll in the program by submitting an on-line application to Twitter and agreeing to make security adjustments on their Twitter accounts.  Then, there's a special process for sending the alerts via Twitter.  They'll show up differently than other Tweets, depending on the mobile device being used.

Twitter says it will give priority access to:

  1. law enforcement and public safety
  2. emergency management
  3. city and municipal governments, their agencies and representatives
  4. county and regional agencies providing services to cities and municipalities
  5. certain state, federal and national agencies and NGOs (For example, the American Red Cross is enrolled.)

The public has to sign up if they want to participate.  It, too, is a simple process - just a few steps as outlined on a Twitter blog post here.  However, the public apparently will need to sign up for each individual organization's alerts.  For example, here is the link for signing up for FEMA alerts.

Among the organizations participating so far:

  • American Red Cross
  • FEMA and Ready.gov
  • NOAA
  • U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Interior
  • State emergency management agencies in Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, South Carolina,  and Virginia
  • Local emergency management agencies in New York City, Boston, New Orleans, Miami, Colorado Springs
  • Fire departments in Los Angeles County and Colorado Springs, 
  • El Paso County Sheriff's Office and Public Health

A list of participating organizations can be found on the Twitter web site here.  The page includes the links for signing up for alerts from the various organizations.

Twitter tries to make it clear that Twitter Alerts do not replace official emergency notification systems or services, but rather should be used as a complementary channel of information. (Twitter places such a disclaimer in bold letters in its outreach material.)

Despite the fact that public sign-up is simple, the public will still need to feel motivated to register for alerts from the various participating organizations.  You would think (and hope) that Twitter's obvious success in spreading the word about their services would help.  Plus, participating organizations will be spreading the word, too.  It will be real interesting to watch this grow, and to find out how receptive the public has been.

All the best,


Galain Solutions, Inc.




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September 25, 2013

We're beginning to see a good bit of buzz creation by state and local public safety agencies who are actively promoting Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), the new national cell phone alerting system.  Although the system's roots come from the federal government, it's local and state agencies who will most successfully educate the public.

Case in point:  The State of Mississippi recently marked the eighth anniversary of Hurriacane Katrina by the Governor hosting a news conference where WEA was featured.  Governor Phil Bryant called WEA an "amazingly effective" tool for alerting the public.  The press conference can be found at Mississippi Emergency Management Agency's web site here.

San Diego County recently held a series of media events where WEA was touted.  They were motivated to spread the word after an AMBER Alert for Ethan and Hannah Anderson lit up social media when people in, first, southern California, then northern California, then Idaho and Washington states heard the loud tones and felt the strange vibrations of a WEA message.  

Meantime, we're tracking a noticeable uptick of state and local public safety agencies using their social media channels to spread the word about WEA.  And, they're not the only ones.  Health departments are doing so, too.  Federal agencies, like the FBI, are posting about WEA.  So are rescue squads and urban search and rescue groups, Citizen Corps groups, ham operators, hospitals, 9-1-1 centers, attorneys, and we could go on.

In the last month, we found over a thousand mentions of Wireless Emergency Alerts in social media...and, that does not include the posts by people who don't realize the name of the program is Wireless Emergency Alerts.  

I wouldn't say there's a groundswell of activity, but it sure looks like it's starting.  And, places like Mississippi and San Diego and the other communities where public safety is spreading the word are among the first to know.

All the best,



Galain Solutions, Inc.

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September 23, 2013

Wow, check out Florida State University's (FSU) web site.  They have 35, yes count 'em, 35 methods listed for emergency notifications and warnings.  

They're broken down into three categories:

  • Primary:  things like sirens, SMS, email, voice calls.
  • Secondary:  including social media, digital displays, two-way radios
  • Tertiary:  not within direct control of FSU, but available nontheless such as NOAA radio and local media

And, number 35 on the list:  Word of Mouth.  (Good one, FSU.)



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September 19, 2013

Another tragic and incomprehensible shooting this week...13 dead at the Navy Shipyard in Washington, DC.  One of the most disturbing facts is that this type of thing could happen anywhere.

Our phones and email have been busy already, hearing from clients and contacts wanting to talk about how they can strengthen ability to quickly warn people when unpredictable and dangerous things threaten.

We can talk about enhancements to public address systems, text messaging, building alarms, on-screen pop-ups, telephone calls, call boxes, sirens, social media and the list goes on.  But, none of these systems will work in a situation like this unless they are real fast.  And, in this case, fast means several things:

  1. Are user interfaces intuitive enough to allow quick activation when adrenalin is flowing and pressures are intense?
  2. Has activation training been sufficient to overcome the fact that these types of things don't happen often?
  3. Do the various systems available require different activation processes?
  4. Have provisions been made for multiple activation points?  Who knows what may be happening at times like this?  The normal activation point may not be accessible at the time.
  5. Would people understand the alerts and what they are being told to do?
  6. Are the various systems capable of delivering their messages quickly, once activated?

Assume you can answer "yes" to the questions above.  You're still not there.  In fact, here's perhaps the most important question you have to ask:  Is authority and process for quickly activating clearly established and understood?    

I don't know how much warning was given at the Navy Shipyard.  I don't even know if it was possible to give more warning.  But, I do know that once again, we all need to asking difficult questions about whether we can warn quickly if something like this happens on our watch.



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September 18, 2013

A Public Broadcasting System (PBS) project is getting closer to making available a back-up for Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA).  The PBS WARN effort is designed to provide an additional pathway for WEA messages to be transmitted from FEMA to the cell carriers who broadcast the alerts to mobile devices.  PBS and vendor TeleCommunication Systems, Inc. have announced that PBS WARN has now been connected to WEA technology maintained by FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) program.  Now, the carriers can integrate the back-up into their systems.

PBS WARN would be used if the internet, the primary channel for FEMA-to-carrier transmissions, is down.  The PBS satellite system would send the WEA messages to PBS stations around the country.  The messages could be picked up by carriers, then transmitted via cellular networks to the public.

The back-up system is designed to work seamlessly and fast.  Alert orgininators, like local and state public safety agencies, and the public will not know the PBS WARN back-up is operating.  Activation processes and message delivery will remain the same.  

PBS WARN was built with $26.8-million from the Commerce Department, which also paid to add power back-up and hardening to the PBS stations receiving the feeds.  

PBS WARN executive director Dana Golub called the connection to FEMA an "important milestone".  

All the best,





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September 16, 2013

The list continues to steadily grow of agencies across the country going through the process of becoming alerting authorities through the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).   What are they really signing up for? 

In a nutshell, they’ll be given authority to issue alerts through IPAWS and its initiatives, such as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA).  Local and state agencies with alerting authority have a good bit of discretion over the alerts they send via WEA.  In fact, FEMA will not check them for content, but rather for meeting technical requirements.  However, by regulation, WEA messages sent by local and state authorities must be consider Imminent Threat messages.  That means the alert must meet a minimum value for each of the three Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) elements of Urgency, Severity, and Certainty.


  •  “Immediate” - Responsive action should be taken immediately
  • “Expected” - Responsive action should be taken soon (within next hour)


  • “Extreme” - Extraordinary threat to life or property
  • “Severe” - Significant threat to life or property


  • “Observed” – Determined to have occurred or to be ongoing
  • “Likely” - Probability is greater than or equal to 50%

Local and state authorities can get information on the sign up process through a short Youtube video Galain posted.  And, there’s a great deal of information on the FEMA IPAWS website at http://www.fema.gov/integrated-public-alert-warning-system.  

All the best, 



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August 15, 2013

A majority of public sector officials who responded to a vendor survey said they feel organizations do not have adequate emergency notification tools to communicate effectively.  The survey was conducted by GovDelivery, which provides an alerting tool along with social media services for government.  

The study posed the question, "Do you think most government organizations have adequate emergency notification tools to communicate effectively with the public?".  63% responded "no".  36% responded "yes".

  • 10% rated their existing emergency notification solution as "excellent", 37% as "good", and 29% as "fair".  
  • Virtually all respondents said they agreed with that "integration of voice and digital communications is esstential for successful emergency notification".  (4% disagreed.)  
  • 64% said they believe public expectations are increasing for government engagement against web-based social platforms.
  • 78% said they think their organization will benefit in 2013 from a single-platform system that integrates voice, email, SMS/text, and social media.

Mary Yang of GovDelivery says the survey results came from 250 voluntary respondents from a survey request that went to 10,000 public sector employees.  Yang says, without the survey, everyone understands the mobile revolution is "huge".  She says a more noteworthy result was the interest in single-platform alerting solutions.

You can get a copy of the survey report and white paper here.  

The survey didn't produce any surprises, but it was interesting to see the rate of desire for more adequate tools, and uniform acceptance of integration of voice and digital communications.

All the best,



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August 11, 2013

Although it wasn’t the first use of Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) for AMBER Alerts, the WEA messages issued for a California case have generated the most attention for WEA to date.  One of the themes being spread is about backlash against WEA because people were surprised by the alerts.  Instructions on turning off the alerts have been circulating through social media and, in the general media, reports can be found like one from National Public Radio headlined on their web site as “New Digital Amber Alerts Could Create a Backlash”.

We’re not convinced that backlash is the right word.  Surprise may be a better one.  We monitor general and social media on this topic very closely using sophisticated tools.  Often, the sentiment expressed is one of surprise, not necessarily negativity.  After all, some of the WEA alerts have been issued in the middle of the night, and have awakened lots of people with their screeching tones.

Just because people are surprised, maybe even annoyed, does that really mean they are negative?  Does that mean they won’t be alerted to the situation at hand?  Does that really mean they will opt out of receiving the alerts?  I don’t think so.

A reporter asked me last week what I would say to someone to convince them not to opt out of the AMBER Alerts on WEA, I was almost speechless thinking I couldn’t imagine why someone could not see the value in being alerted about a hunt for a child considered to be in serious danger.  (AMBER Alerts are used very selectively.)  And, if they don’t see the value, there’s not much I could say to them to change their minds, other than ask them to really think about what they’re doing.

Even the NPR technology reporter, Steve Henn, who said he couldn’t figure out why he received the alert in the middle of the night since the kidnapping occurred over 500 miles from his home seemed to later understand why; the suspect and the missing child had apparently traveled within 100 miles of his home.

By the way, the on-line talk has died down already.  The spike in social media activity fell dramatically after the first day or so. 

And, here’s the most important point:  16-year-old Hannah Anderson is now safe.  She was found in rural Idaho after a tip from a horseback rider who learned about the AMBER Alert. 

All the best,



August 08, 2013

The most social media activity to date regarding Wireless Emergency Alerts(WEA) is being observed after an AMBER Alert was issued Sunday in San Diego
County.  Authorities continue their search for a man believed to have
abducted one child, killed the child's mother, and possibly her brother.  

We found close to 33,000 mentions of AMBER Alerts on phones, making over
10,000,000 impressions in the few days following the original AMBER Alert.
 This is more than we've seen anywhere, including when an AMBER Alert via
WEA was issued in New York City.  And, more mentions are likely as
authorities expand their hunt to Washington and Oregon.  

A spokesman for the San Diego Sheriff's Department told the Los Angeles
Times that they've received "lots and lots of tips from across the
country".  See Times article here.

This is the first time an AMBER Alert has been
issued via WEA in California, so some of the social mentions expressed
surprise.  Some complained, and others passed along the info.  A
noticeable number of posts, including from media outlets, are explaining WEA
and how it's used.  Some are providing guidance on how to disable cell
phone capability to receive the AMBER Alerts.

One thing for certain:  more people in California now know about
WEA...but, more importantly, more people in multiple states now know about the
search for the missing child.  It's working.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has all active AMBER Alerts posted here including
the ones in California, Washington and Oregon for Hannah and Ethan Anderson.

All the best,



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August 02, 2013

Getting ready for a webinar on the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), I re-read the Presidential Executive Order that led to the creation of IPAWS and wondered if the vision of the 2006 order is being followed.  Here are some of the highlights of the Order issued by President Bush, and a bit of commentary on the progress.

"It is the policy of the United States to have an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people..."

Comment:  I guess you have to dissect this one point-by-point.  Effective?  For the most part, yes.  Reliable? The alerting infrastructure is getting stronger, mostly because the risk has been spread out to more modes of communication.  Integrated?  Not there yet, although the IPAWS system-of-system is moving in that direction.
"establish or adopt, as appropriate, common alerting and warning protocols, standards, terminology, and operating procedures;"

Comment:  Certainly, protocols have been established via Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) which, in my once-skeptical opinion, is nothing short of a major accomplishment.  Terminology and operating procedures haven't really been established.  Perhaps they're not so "appropriate" after all.

"ensure the capability to adapt the distribution and content of communications based on geographic locations, risks, or personal user preferences;"

Comment:  Geographic targeting is at the heart of alerting systems, has been and will be more so as time progresses.  Being able to alert a geographic area allows targeting where the risks exist.  As for personal user preferences, the fact that virtually everyone accepts that no single communications mode will suffice for alerts, that only system-of-systems will work, helps support the personal user preference objective.

"include in the public alert and warning system the capability to alert and warn all Americans, including those with disabilities and those without an understanding of the English language;"

Comment:  The Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) program is providing strong support for this goal.  Recent studies at Georgia Tech (see our post here) show that text messaging has become the second preferred method for alert information for people with disabilities (behind television), up from sixth most preferred.  So, the new WEA initiative is helping meet this goal.  (Go here for a white paper on how IPAWS helps support alerts for the "whole community".)

"ensure the conduct of training, tests, and exercises for the public alert and warning system;"

Comment:  About the only progress in this regard has been the first-ever national test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS).  Still work to be done here.

"ensure the conduct of public educational efforts..."

Comment:  As the WEA system is used for weather alerts and AMBER Alerts, public awareness is increasing...but, I don't think anyone would argue that the public is well-educated on the newer national alerting initiatives.

"administer the Emergency Alert System (EAS) as a critical component of the public alert and warning system"

Comment:  Although the EAS system has roots that go back to the 1950's, it still is a very viable system and gets a lot of attention.  EAS has been digitized, the national EAS test was conducted, the number of relay points has been increased dramatically, and broadcasters remain supportive.  Good marks for this goal.

"ensure that under all conditions the President of the United States can alert and warn the American people".

Comment:  All conditions?  Yes, the President of the US would have access to EAS and WEA, but would these two tools cover all conditions?  I doubt it.  

So, there you have it.  No, the full vision has not be realized.  But, clearly nice progress has been made.


By the way, the webinar that prompted me to re-read the Executive Order is being conducted by Emergency Communications Network Tuesday, August 6th at 2pm (Eastern).  I'll be among the presenters.  You can register here.  

All the best,


Galain Solutions, Inc.

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