This is only a test…

I have been seeing notifications all over media about the upcoming Nationwide Test of the Emergency Alert System on Wednesday, November 9 at 2:00 PM EST. The FEMA website states that the test will be broadcasted on TV and radio stations. Does anyone know if there are social media aspects included in the EAS and how accessible these alerts are to people with disabilities?

This summer I was sitting in the hospital in Michigan after the birth of my daughter and suddenly the TV began to shake. We wondered if we just imagined it, if there was large construction equipment nearby, or if we had just experienced an earthquake. Where did we look for information? Why by checking Facebook on our smart phone of course. Did anyone else feel anything? Answers and other posts came in from across the country. Within minutes we found out there was a large earthquake in Virginia, and we were feeling the very edges of the shockwave.

Given the prevalence of social media and handheld personal devices like smart phones, how can social media be used to enhance emergency alerts? Is a top down approach with the government pushing out information the best way or should it be more organic and driven by individuals sharing their experiences and knowledge? And how accessible to people with disabilities or limited technical resources are all these alerts? Is anyone collecting data on these questions?

This is another post from the Accessibility Forum 2.0 blog.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

This is a great question, Melinda! Below is what I found on the FCC website. I’m not very satisfied with that answer, are you?

Where does media communications-based alerting fit within the development of next generation alerting systems like PLAN and the availability of social networking sites as tools for emergency alerting?

Because we cannot anticipate what systems might be affected by an emergency, it is important to have a redundant, multi-platform alerting system. The EAS is designed to work when other methods of disseminating emergency alerts are unavailable. While there is no guarantee that any form of communications will withstand major disasters, various elements of the EAS are hardened to withstand such calamities. Moreover, the EAS uses technology that is widely accessible to the public. Almost everyone has access to a radio (for example, in a car or via a battery-powered handheld device) and/or a television receiver.

While our ultimate goal is to have an integrated public alert and warning system that will use multiple communications technologies, the EAS will serve as a primary method for transmitting national emergency alerts and warnings for the foreseeable future.

Andrew Krzmarzick

P.S. When the earthquake hit the DC area, I was on a Google+ Hangout call with colleagues (I was in Durham, NC and they were in DC). Their room started shaking all of a sudden. They got up and went in the hall to talk with colleagues, leaving the video on. 15 seconds later, I felt the shaking in Durham. I told them and immediately checked Twitter and learned within seconds of the start of this event that there were similar reports as far north as Canada and as far south as Charlotte, NC…of course, USGS used social media effectively to gather data about the citizen experience of the event as well.

But in the UK, 2/3 of citizens support shutting down Twitter and Facebook during riots or similar disruption. Seems like we’d be taking a step backward there…

Eager to here other thoughts on this subject.

Mark Hammer

The increasing fragmentation of media and their respective audiences poses considerable challenge to contemporary emergency information systems. Not everybody listens to the radio or watches television, and even if they did, coordinating urgent information such that nobody is busying themselves with classic rock or “Say Yes to the Dress” when urgent information should be accessed, is one tough nut to crack; particularly since so many people watch television or listen to radio that does not originate in their area. My own radio dial rarely leaves the national public broadcaster, but I realize I’m in the minority there.

And then there is the web. Just where exactly does emergency information go? Again, how does one coordinate the presence and timeliness of emergency information? You can’t rely on pop-ups because lots of folks block those. “Pushing” the info out to websites from a central dispatch is also a non-started because the amount of simultaneous traffic that would require could choke servers.

Sure glad it’s not my job to figure this out.