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Takeaways from the DC-area WEA system test

On April 5, 2018, emergency managers across the National Capital Region sent a test message to 5.5 million people through the Wireless Emergency Alert system, which allows government and public safety officials to send emergency information to an individual's cell phone in a specific geographic area. In total, 13 alerting authorities sent the message to 20 jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C., and  surrounding communities in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

WEAs have previously been used by state police for AMBER Alerts and by the National Weather Service for flash flood warnings in the region, but never had WEAs been sent to such a large population, nor had they been planned with ample opportunity to gather public feedback. While similar tests have been conducted  -- such as the one by the District of Columbia in advance of the Trump presidential inauguration -- this was the single largest test of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s emergency alerting system since it came online in 2012.

Since then, emergency managers across the region have expressed interest in performing a larger test to better understand the reach and reliability of WEAs. While the WEA capability is reserved for severe threats and hazards, it is a free service that does not require people to sign up -- making it an important tool for sharing critical information about safety threats in an area.

Nicole Peckumn with the District of Columbia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, who serves as chair of the region’s Public Information Officer group, explained, “When minutes matter in an emergency, we must deliver the right information, to the right people at the right time so they can make the right decisions. Exercising WEA provides public awareness of the tool and how information will be displayed on their cell phones and mobile devices.”

The participating cities and counties' preparation for the recent historic test -- and how they ensured critical, potentially life-saving information was received by those who need it, when they need it -- offers some best practices for municipalities testing emergency alerts.

Securing required permissions

In the weeks leading up to the test, the participating jurisdictions hosted several meetings to plan and coordinate the exercise. While the Federal Communications Commission usually prohibits live public tests of WEAs, the jurisdictions submitted a formal request to the FCC and received a waiver. This gave them permission for a one-time test that would make the public aware  of the tool and show them how information will be displayed on their cell phones and mobile devices.

Organizations looking to become an alerting authority must complete training, submit an application to FEMA and receive approval from FEMA and their state. While state and local government emergency management agencies comprise the majority of alerting authorities, universities, military bases and airports may also apply.

Multi-modal is key to engagement

Government officials have a responsibility to alert and warn the public of significant threats, so it’s imperative to test all available tools before relying on them in real situations. Because only a fraction of a major metro area’s population takes the time to sign up for emergency alerts, using a system that doesn’t require registration is extremely valuable to emergency managers.

It is also important to ensure residents know about the alerting system and the test. The region’s public information officers group developed a media kit and marketing plan that standardized how jurisdictions informed their communities about the test. Promotion began about a week and a half before the event, and the test received unprecedented interest on social media, websites and local TV and radio.

By using multiple channels of promotion, the participating jurisdictions ensured that all residents were informed before the test. For example, leveraging social media at regular intervals enabled agencies to amplify their message when residents shared and re-tweeted the news within their own personal networks, reaching a larger portion of the population that may not follow the government agencies’ social networks.

To ensure jurisdictions can reach everyone in an emergency, officials should also leverage a critical event management system that supports the WEA capability. These systems allow alerting authorities  to warn their communities via SMS text messages, email, phone calls, mobile app push notifications and social media postings. WEAs don’t reach everyone, and these other communication modalities can also deliver more detailed, media-rich information.

Program refinements through public feedback

After the test was completed, a public survey was conducted to gather feedback about whether people in the region received the alert and whether it was timely. The survey also identified people that didn’t receive the message – and the reasons why – and helped with evaluating the percentage of people receiving the alert in the designated location.

Every jurisdiction in the National Capital Region confirmed most people in their communities received the alert. Posts on social media and comment sections on different news articles suggested that people had varied experiences. For example, while most people reported receiving the alert, many did not hear the alert tone;  this is likely because their devices were in “silent” mode. Others who did not receive the warning may have turned off the WEA alerts in their notification settings. WEAs sent via mobile phones are extremely powerful in quickly reaching a very large segment of the public who may not have signed up to receive alerts.

“The test gave us a much greater understanding of the WEA capability. We are now more confident that it reaches most people, but we know it is not a silver bullet," said Sulayman Brown of Fairfax County Office of Emergency Management who serves as administrator of the region’s notification program. "Not everyone gets it, not everyone hears the audible alert tone. Ultimately, if we need to notify our community, this will be one of many ways.”

Agencies looking to ensure their entire community is kept informed and safe should make the appropriate preparations so they can perform a WEA system test in their own jurisdiction to better understand the system’s capabilities and verify that they’re able to communicate with all targeted groups during an emergency.

About the Author

Thomas Crane is senior solutions consultant at Everbridge.

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