Increased public awareness needed for alerts and warnings

Technology_-Mobile_--smartphone-and-tablet-sitting-on--a-mans-lapAre we providing enough information to residents about alerts and warnings? The global answer in most cases is probably not. The more informed the public is about the different types of alert and warning methods they will receive from their state or local jurisdiction, the better they will accept them and learn to expect them in times of emergency. Your mass notification system is one of the most important tools in your public safety toolbox, yet it is commonly the most underused, for varying reasons.

Public tolerance climate for this varies from one area to the next and in some cases it may have a lot to do with the lack of information that we, as a society, are providing to them. With today’s technology, there are many modes of dissemination for delivering alerts/warnings, emergency and general information to the public. Sometimes to the point of, ”Which alert did I just get and who was it from?”

For that reason, we need to improve in the area of making sure our residents are aware of the many methods in which they may receive these messages. This goes for your local tool, and others including mobile apps and IPAWS. During a serious emergency it is likely the public may receive the same alert or warning message on their wireless device multiple times, but each time from a different source. We have succeeded in alerting them this way (and possibly saved a life) however the uninformed public may think those alerts all came from the same source. In some cases this may cause frustration because the public was not well enough educated about the available alerting sources used to contact them during an emergency.

IPAWS alerts, especially for weather, may come from a different source to your residents, like the National Weather Service. FEMA has an aggressive outreach program for the IPAWS system, however they need the assistance of state and local public safety officials to help make the public aware of IPAWS and how it works.

A majority of smartphone users are not aware of the IPAWS component built in their wireless device until they receive an alert, and become annoyed about how it got there. We encourage you to include information about IPAWS along with the information about your mass notification system in all of your public information and awareness campaigns. This will go a long way towards enhancing the public’s opinion about receiving emergency messages.

Partly because of public perception, many of our CodeRED clients are reluctant and hesitant to send out emergency messages or pre/post-disaster information to their community for fear of negative public opinion. After the incident, they are sometimes blamed for having a means for communicating and not using the life safety tool for that particular event.

There is a fine balance of when you should send a message and when not to, however in most cases a well-developed emergency communications plan will remove doubt and provide guidance for your decision. It is yours to use, especially for these incidents, so please use it to its maximum effectiveness to save a life.

Again, increased public awareness about the availability and intended use of alerting technologies will provide better acceptance within your community, which will give you the confidence to use your system more. Remember to use every form of notification too when launching emergency alerts and warnings through CodeRED. Each form of dissemination used provides a greater expansion field for the message to reach as many of your resident’s who may be in harm’s way. Every individual matters.

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Don Hall is ECN’s Director of Government Relations and is a regular contributor on our blog. Hall’s public safety career experience includes 20 years as an Emergency Manager in Calvert County, Md., Jacksonville, FL and Washington, D.C. He also spent 10 years in law enforcement and 911 emergency communications and has 42 years of active duty experience in the Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service in Maryland. He has managed and directed more than 30 Presidential Disaster Declarations during his emergency management career and received numerous public safety- related awards and citations.