IPAWS: Face Down Fear with Expert Tips on Sending Emergency Alerts

Guest author Eddie Bertola, Founder of Bertola Advisory Services, shares his expertise on emergency alerting strategies and best practices for overcoming common fears associated with using this life-saving technology.

When it comes to keeping people safe, I know firsthand the power of a reliable mass notification system. Since my 15-year career with the California Highway Patrol, I’ve worked closely as a consultant for FEMA’s IPAWS system and served as an expert in alert origination. I’ve committed my career to the use of missing person alerts and mass notification strategies to facilitate public engagement and resolve emergencies. I’ve also had the privilege to conduct training across all 50 states and internationally on improving the effectiveness of emergency messaging.

What does all of that really mean?

It's about getting the word out. Technology has brought us far from the days of Paul Revere shouting that the British are coming, but mass notification relies on the same simple concept. And yet, for many current and would-be users, the process feels intimidating — sometimes to the point of causing avoidance.

This is understandable, but it can be overcome. I’ve observed two universal truths in my career: Fear always underlies failure, and education brings empowerment.

The Roots of Fear

What are the main reasons behind the fear associated with using an emergency mass notification system for public safety? Here are some of the most common:

    • Stress and general confusion
    • Lack of training and practice
    • Prior negative experience(s)
    • Concerns about liability

In situations requiring IPAWS, the government’s national overarching alert system, urgency is usually high, and there can be a lot of confusion. When and how do I send the alert? Who exactly should get it? What should the content be and how many characters? This combination of stress and lack of system familiarity is daunting for even the most seasoned public safety professional.

Prior negative experiences are another instigator of fear. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the operating system blamed, when in fact, it's a user who's uncomfortable and not sure what to do. If an alert previously went out in error, too late or with the wrong information, that user bears a scar. The worry increases: What if I do it wrong and make the situation worse? Whether factual or not, concern over professional liability can be crippling: What if I set something in motion that drains resources and I get fired? I’ve had alert originators who are so afraid to make a mistake they will insist on checking not only with their boss, but also their boss’s boss and they miss the window for sending the alert.

Phone showing a national alert test

In Control: A Guide to Navigating Emergency Alerting With Authority and Precision

Use this first-of-its-kind guide to stop hesitating and use IPAWS to send life-saving alerts with confidence.

In addition to these factors, individuals tasked with using the emergency alerting system often fall into the category of low frequency/high risk. That is to say, they’re operating under stressful circumstances that require swift, decisive action. Yet it’s their first time using the system. Although events such as hurricanes and active shooters are happening with greater frequency, they’re not an everyday occurrence (and hopefully never will be). That means an alert originator could be sending their first real-life alert under conditions when proper and timely execution matters most. In the military, law enforcement and emergency services, we know that’s a dangerous combination.

A hurricane is a perfect example. It’s an infrequent event (relatively speaking) in which senders (government officials, police, fire and EMS, etc.) and recipients (citizens and various municipal staff) will be equally stressed. When you’re preparing for such conditions, it’s imperative that everyone be familiar with the technology and confident in its ability to keep them informed and connected. This goes a long way to keeping people calm, which is a key component of public safety during extreme weather.

Ultimately, you want people to feel confident they have all the information, they’ve taken the necessary actions to protect themselves and they’re not alone.

The Results of Fear and Unfamiliarity

Ironically, the very mistakes alert initiators are afraid of are the ones most likely to occur due to lack of training on the system.

    • Paralysis
    • Oversaturation and desensitization
    • Ineffective alerts and inaccurate parameters

When you’re new to alerting, it’s easy to become hyper-vigilant about every possible detail. While accuracy is important, “analysis paralysis” is a very real risk. This happened in one state when zero alerts were sent to warn residents of the incoming storm — even though officials had an emergency alerting system at their disposal.

In another prior case for a missing juvenile, I knew the county emergency manager had the ability to utilize the emergency alerting system. Unfortunately, when I approached him, it became clear he hadn’t used the system in quite a while and was very reluctant. His lack of knowledge was paralyzing. He deliberated for so long, the alert never went out — in this case, the fear won.

The flipside is oversaturation. A blanket approach that sends the alert to people well beyond the range of impact results in desensitization. Everyone already receives too many messages, ads and notifications as it is. In an emergency, your alert has to cut through the noise. The best practice is to determine the appropriate geographically targeted area. Correct use of codes and partnership with your local broadcasters are also key. As you do this over time, recipients will trust that alerts you send are, in fact, relevant to them and their safety.

Interestingly enough, geographic targeting works both ways. Just this past summer a tornado occurred overnight. A colleague of mine whose home was located just five miles away from the impact never received the alert, while her neighbors living one block away did. Why? Because her address was across the county line, so she wasn’t included in the alert recipient list. Fortunately, the tornado didn’t touch her home, but it was terrifying to learn how close it was.

This story points to how important it is for local emergency managers to not solely rely on sources like the National Weather Service for the geographic radius of where to send an alert. Local officials need to be confident enough to be more proactive in certain situations and take ownership. Why? Because they live in the community. Owning alerts helps enhance local relationships and build trust – which can help strengthen communities.

Another result of lack of training is ineffective alerting. This happens when messages contain insufficient or incorrect information and/or that information doesn’t reach the right audience. I try to impress upon alert originators to write the message for someone who doesn't know what's going on. Paralysis can also happen on the recipient’s side if they receive just enough information to become distressed, but not enough to gain clear direction on how to self-protect. Always ask, “Does this message provide the necessary information and clear directions for next steps?” Simple proofreading is another quick yet essential step, but you’d be surprised how often it’s skipped.

Keeping all this in mind, what else can your agency do to build familiarity, reduce fear and improve accuracy? Hint: It starts with educating ourselves on the essentials and ensuring we understand the basics.

Not sure where to start? Watch this on-demand webinar, where we dig deeper into these topics: Confidence Through Competence™: How to Shift Your Mindset and Use IPAWS with Authority.

And check out Part 2 of this blog, where I take a closer look at IPAWS education and training best practices – and why learning is (and should be) ongoing for all of us.

Eddie Bertola

Eddie Bertola is the founder of Bertola Advisory Services and a subject matter expert in alert origination, mass notification strategies, missing person alerts and engagement with the public during emergencies. He consults for FEMA/IPAWS, Fortune 100 companies, and federal, state, local, territorial and tribal communities across the United States and internationally to aid with the creation and correction of policy, procedures and best practices. He is a Pea Ridge Arkansas Reserve Police Officer, a member of the Arkansas Troop L Child Abduction Response Team and the FBI Task Force for Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking. He worked for the California Highway Patrol for 15 years, ending in the Counterterrorism and Threat Awareness Section as the lead statewide instructor for emergency messaging and missing person alerting.