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CB2: Getting Emergency Notification Right

Mobile emergency notifications can save lives by getting important messages out to (or soliciting them from) the public quickly. Whether it’s a phone call delivering a tornado warning minutes before touchdown or a text message alerting students of a shooter on campus, there’s no doubt that it’s an invaluable service when done right.
But what do I mean, “when done right?
As with most new technologies, it takes some time to develop best practices. And if I know one thing about the GovLoop community (other than our natural charm and style), collaborating and sharing best practices is what we do best. Another thing were good at is making awesome lists. So in that spirit, let me start a list that we can keep growing with your comments below.
Do your homework up front. St. Charles Parish Director of Emergency Preparedness Scott Whelchel does alerting right, and contributed what I believe is the most important tip in this list: “Do your homework upfront. Identify what threats exist in your area, whom you want to communicate with, and prescript messages where possible.” The actual notification is the last action in a series of steps to assess the situation, determine who should be notified, how quickly and what the message should contain.
Don’t overuse and abuse it. Seriously, my voicemail box is full after ignoring dozens of messages from Notify NYC about how hot it is outside. I don’t mean to downplay the dangers of extreme heat, but if I unsubscribe because I’m sick of getting messages about open cooling centers, I’d miss more important alerts in the future.

Leverage geotargeting. Choose an alerting platform that enables you to target a message to folks in a specific geographic area. Whether this is done on a zip code level or by drawing a polygon on a map, control which messages go to which people during your next event.
Don’t forget social media. Cross-post your mobile alert as a Tweet and a Facebook post, as these could go viral very quickly. This application for Facebook enables you to post to both at once – again saving time in an emergency.
Identify who the sender is. Pet peeve alert: Granted, I’m not a typical user, but an SMS saying “Tanker explosion on MLK St. Evacuate area” from short code 137905 makes me think, “Um, here in St. Petersburg or at my parents’ in Philadelphia?” Don’t assume your audience knows who the message is from. To save characters in an SMS, use an alias like “StPeteAlert: Tanker…”
Make alerting companies compete for your business. At the end of the day, each company pushes a message through telephone and data networks like Verizon, where they pass on that fee to you in the form of an annual subscription or per-message fee. Be careful about selecting a company without references on par with your agency, but once you have things narrowed down, make a deal. It’s a very competitive space. Also, try before you buy. The last thing you want is a platform designed for campus alerts that doesn’t fit well with weather alerts or vice versa.
Now it’s your turn. What’s on YOUR list?
And lastly, if you’re curious to see how I would start making alerting better, check out this YouTube video for GovLive Alerts, a service we’re prototyping at the moment.

Website of the Week: This Article About Giant Hail
I mean come on, that’s really cool and scary at the same time! I promise a more useful resource next week.

Read Last Week’s CB2: CB2: Storm=Brewing, Well=Capped!

If you didn’t find the comic above funny enough this week, here’s a cute puppy as a hot dog.

About Chris Bennett

Chris Bennett is a self-proclaimed emergency management innovator who is trying to make government better by improving citizen preparedness and crisis communications. He’s a graduate of Wharton with a master’s from Harvard with in “Technology, Innovation, Education.” His portfolio of companies and former projects include OneStorm Hurricane Preparedness, ReadyTown, GovLive, TexasPrepares and America’s Emergency Network. Chris was the recipient of FL Governor Crist’s 2008 Public Information Award. He lives in St. Petersburg, FL, loves to fish, and has been spotted sharing a pint with GovLoop Founder Steve Ressler in Tampa.

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Chris Bennett

Thanks Hal. I keep one eye on IPAWS but that whole process moves too slowly for me. Same thing with CAP (Common Alerting Protocol). I place my bets on industry leading this one. The monthly Emergency Broadcast System tests on your TV are for a system that hasn’t been used once since it started in the 60s.

Yes, NYC is doing well. My comment about them doing “too much” wasn’t meant to downplay all they have accomplished.

I’ve designed a few passive alerting systems in my time – even winning NAVTEQ’s developer challenge for doing so in fact – but the issue isn’t so much the technology. I believe it comes down to people feeling they have the right not to receive any electronic message (SMS, email or otherwise) that they didn’t opt in for. People want to control their communication preferences and while they may all agree “yes, I want to know if a meteor is headed for my town,” many would be ticked off if they got an unsolicited message from NYC saying “low-flying planes over NYC is just a military exercise.”

I believe the solution to establish a central data pool where every city’s emergency message gets CC’d there (tagged with location), and then is made available via an API for telecom networks, startups… everyone. That’s where I’m going with GovLive Alerts. Would love to have an agency or other corporation partner with us to speed that up. Overnight mobile apps would spring up with entrepreneurs creating location-aware nationwide emergency alerting programs.

Sara Estes Cohen

ha – was going to mention the same things; GREAT POST.

There is another big one though too:

INTEGRATION of existing systems (and leveraging new): EMs are always concerned that they will have to initiate communication via several locations all at once and in time to get the word out immediately; I worked with EMs on building integration capabilities to be able to send one message from one location that then goes out via several channels all at once, and appropriate to the technology.

Integration will help with efficiency and cost (resources) – and enable EMs to get word out within required time period after an event.

I know of several COTS which provide integration capabilities – and allow senders to choose specific demographics; I can’t wait until the cost of these systems goes down, and when govs can start sending (I know this is possible) based on gps location (e.g., a chemical spill occurs and they need to send a Shelter In Place message, but only to those affected…universities can do this now with specific buildings, etc. I think additional partnerships with the cell phone providers is needed to get this ball rolling.