Modernizing emergency communications for the 21st century


Modernizing emergency communications for the 21st century

This past September, millions of people in and around New York City and New Jersey received cell phone alerts from the Federal Communications Commission’s Wireless Emergency Alert system for three separate bombings in the area. While the WEA system has been used to assist authorities in past emergency events, including the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, specific directives (i.e., “shelter in place”) and safety updates were shared with recipients in this year’s emergencies.

In the case of the recent bombings, the WEA system was used to send a brief 90-character message to cellphone users in NYC alerting them to look out for a suspect, but the message had no additional links, photos or embedded media. It was essentially an electronic wanted poster with a giant question mark where the face would usually appear. While the suspect was captured relatively quickly, many people criticized the vague directive (i.e., "see media for pic") and the lack of a link or identifying information beyond suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami's name. In fact, many argued that the limitations of the WEA system caused unnecessary frustration and confusion.

The recent wildfires in Gatlinburg, Tenn., provided another example where messages sent via WEA could have been used to communicate to residents, visitors and travelers. While the citywide evacuation order was broadcast on TV and radio, it was never relayed directly to area mobile devices. The 90-character limitation for WEA messages did not provide enough space to give people crucial information on what to do and where to go during the evacuation.

Modernizing our federal alert systems to include multimedia messages and longer character counts is necessary to keep citizens informed and safe during severe weather, active shooter situations and other dangerous events. Given that these federal alerting systems are vital to our national security and public safety, updating outdated protocols to match today’s technological capabilities is crucial -- at both the federal and state levels.

To have a truly robust emergency communications system, municipalities across the nation must make additional considerations to bring communications into our modern era.

A multimodal approach to crisis communications

An emergency can affect whole municipalities, counties, towns and numerous government agencies. Often, communication among these groups is limited by their disparate systems that have differing capabilities. The  added chaos and stress of an emergency makes communications even slower, and these increased response times can put citizens in danger.

Equipping all state emergency managers with a shared, standardized system with WEA and emergency notification services capabilities allows for more comprehensive and coordinated communications between government officials and their communities during a crisis. Using the same system statewide allows communications to become more efficient and decreases the time it takes to issue a broadcast message because the same contact paths are shared among all municipalities and agencies. Additionally, a unified system ensures that consistent and complete messages are sent out per clearly defined policies.

Even with a standardized system, participating jurisdictions will be able to customize the categories of alerts available in their community based on each residents’ preferred language and method for receiving alerts, including SMS text, email, voice calls, mobile device apps or desktop alerts. Multimodal alerting is the only way to ensure a widespread message reaches a large population in the quickest way possible.

As an example, let’s say a tornado is set to impact three adjacent counties. Government officials in each county can broadcast public notifications to their residents that are relevant to their specific location -- both leading up to and throughout the course of the storm -- providing residents with critical alerts and instructions as needed. These officials can also publish alerts to each other, so that each county can stay abreast of the other’s activities. In addition, by standardizing on the same emergency notification system, officials can even serve as backup if one of their peers in the adjacent county is not able to distribute alerts in a timely fashion.

If the tornado veers off its projected path and looks to hit only one county, the other two counties can communicate updates to their residents. If people are trapped in collapsed homes and buildings in the tornado’s aftermath, counties that use a shared notification system can send automated cross-county communications to first responders in neighboring cities and towns. And because the counties use a common system, they have access to each other’s contacts and can request and receive aid much faster than by using manual or separate systems.

Taking the guesswork out of messaging

The success of emergency response depends heavily on preparation. When a crisis strikes, emergency managers must share clear, comprehensive information and instructions in a matter of minutes, leaving them little time to think about what should be communicated to the public and to other agencies. Planning communications ahead of time is essential to success.

Currently, there is no single source of communications templates for messages sent for the most critical and common events. This means that emergency managers, such as the team that sent the WEA message in NYC, are left to their own devices to write effective messages that clearly communicate what is happening, who is affected, what protective action individuals should take and who is sending the message. While emergency managers have all this information at hand, they are not messaging experts. Having message templates available for every type of event ensures that ambiguous alerts aren’t hastily shared with the public, which can unintentionally cause more harm than good.

During the recent shooting at Ohio State University, for example, the alert telling students, faculty and staff to “Run Hide Fight” drew some criticism and confusion. While the instructions came straight from the Department of Homeland Security, many did not understand what this directive meant. Protective actions included in an alert must be very clear and easily understood by the message recipients.  For example, to where do the authorities want people to “run”?  In any emergency event, it is wise to provide a link to an emergency information website listing important information to help people understand what they should do to keep safe.

No matter how sophisticated a notification system local or state agencies use, having templates at the ready is a critical component. Templates allow emergency managers to share timely, consistent messages in a limited space, while preventing confusion from spreading.

Building a resident opt-In base

Regardless of how state-of-the-art an emergency communications system may be, alerting citizens can be difficult without a sufficient number of community member contacts in a database. In an emergency, officials must be able to effectively communicate with residents who could be impacted -- especially where safety is threatened. After all, it doesn’t do any good to have a cutting-edge, ultra-modern communications system that can’t reach anybody. That said, government agencies should make it their first priority to ask their residents for two key pieces of information in order to reach them in an emergency:

  • Cell phone numbers: Today, most people rely on their cell phone as their primary communications device, carrying it with them from location to location and staying actively engaged with it throughout the day.
  • Social media information: Social media apps are regularly checked multiple times a day by many people. Social networks are also rich with real-time information on events, topics and trends that can be extremely valuable. In an emergency, social media tools allow emergency managers to disseminate information to wider audiences, obtain better situational awareness and improve collaboration.

Agencies should also provide multiple opt-in methods, including those based on ZIP codes and event keywords, to ensure critical information reaches the right people. A multimodal approach allows government officials to establish connections with as many people, groups and organizations as fast as possible and helps fuel the spread of news and directions more quickly in a crisis.

Government agencies and municipalities with unified, multimodal emergency communications plans can share potentially life-saving information more efficiently and effectively with residents during critical situations, from severe weather disasters to man-made emergencies. While a crisis can never be predicted, having standardized systems and processes in place provides much-needed guidance to both government officials and their communities during an otherwise chaotic event.


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