The advantages of regional approaches to emergency notification

As multiple levels of government are often involved in responding to major incidents, agencies are banding together to develop a regional or statewide approach to critical communications.

Effective communication is essential to fostering a safe, connected and engaged community, and the proliferation of smartphones and social media has raised the public’s expectation that they will be notified immediately if there is an emergency or incident that affects them. Similarly, first responders and emergency managers expect their communications tools to be accessible on various devices and mobile applications.

Major incidents -- like the recent shooting of Dallas police officers during a July 2016 civil protest and the San Bernadino, Calif., attack in December 2015 -- illustrate the need for local governments to prepare for complex, coordinated attacks with high consequences and cascading impacts. Because multiple levels of government are often involved in responding to major incidents, agencies are seeing the value in banding together to develop a regional or statewide approach to critical communications.

Statewide and regional programs

In April 2016 Florida began implementing a statewide system that gave all counties and major cities the ability to share emergency information with residents and visitors. The state-administered system can communicate with county/city system administrators and can even send statewide AlertFlorida alerts if needed. 

The National Capital Region, which comprises Washington, D.C., and several cities and counties within Maryland and Virginia, also uses one platform for emergency notification. The system is used to send internal employee alerts, public alerts and cross-jurisdictional notices.

In 2009, the State of Connecticut was the first state in the country to develop a comprehensive Statewide Mass Notification System where a single notification system could be accessed by all public safety answering points in the state.  The system, CTALERT, is able to send unified emergency notifications to anyone in the state.  Connecticut also deployed notification systems to every state agency and every PSAP that serves the 169 cities and towns.  This additional notification system allows day-to-day, operational-level notifications for police, fire, ambulance and other municipal departments. These deployments send information on everything from severe weather warnings and missing persons alerts to community events and traffic delays.

During emergencies, though, it is common for agencies to have interoperability and compatibility communications challenges when responding with other jurisdictions. While notification platforms offer integrations with third-party products to resolve these challenges, the quickest and easiest path to interoperable communications is to have agencies using the same tool. The benefits of a common platform include:

Secure communications. During major incidents involving mutual aid and multiple responding agencies, government officials depend on communicating in a secure manner.  When all agencies adopt a regional solution that conforms to rigorous security standards they can be assured their information sharing is secure and protected. 

Streamlined training, support and administration. Regions and states that band together to procure a unified critical communication system have the benefit of dedicated vendor support that offers ongoing technical assistance. Additionally, when one agency takes the lead to administer the system, the burden of administrative responsibilities is lessened on all other jurisdictions. A common platform also allows users across each agency to form a user community to help each other better understand and maximize use of the system.

Cost savings and helping the have-nots.  Agencies can leverage their procurement power when they  buy in bulk. Smaller communities that may not otherwise have the budget to purchase a standalone emergency notification system can pool funding with others to procure a regional system. States and metropolitan areas can also apply for grants.

How to ensure success in a regional or state deployment

Improving opt ins. One of the biggest challenges that agencies face is getting members of the community to opt in to receive their messages. Simply put, if alerts do not reach the audience, they cannot be effective.  So how can city officials improve their resident opt-in database so their messages are received and responded to? Simple, old-fashioned marketing techniques.

City and state officials should team up and create a robust marketing plan to inform residents of the system and benefits. For example, when the National Capital Region deployed a critical communication system for over five million residents across Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia, the region marketed the program with public service announcements, brochures, postcards, magnets, pins and even temporary tattoos. The region focused on anything that would get residents to ask, “Where can I sign up for this?”

One technique the NCR used quadrupled the rate of opt ins.  For 4th of July weekend, the City of Fairfax, and Arlington and Montgomery counties asked the public -- both residents and visitors -- to opt in for emergency alerts by simply texting a keyword to 888-777.

Getting support from jurisdiction leaders. In addition to adoption, officials must get collective buy in from fellow jurisdiction leaders. Because each jurisdiction has different priorities and political agendas and desires, support from decision makers is critical. When Connecticut implemented its statewide emergency notification system, for example, officials created an ENS advisory  group that included state agencies and public safety stakeholders – those both for and against the program.  This committee defined policies and worked on legislation to protect citizens’ and public safety users’ privacy when using the system. 

Deploying a successful system takes commitment from leadership that  can dedicate the time to host frequent meetings and support mechanisms for assistance as the program kicks off. Support from the top trickles down to all officials and counties, keeping people engaged and interested in the new system. It also helps make it easier to coordinate regional procedures and protocols and outline in what instances cross-county or cross-region notifications should occur.

Making the program location agnostic. When planning for a large-scale emergency notification system deployment, it’s important to acknowledge that residents often travel across different county/region lines on a daily basis. For the National Capital Region, officials had to account for the residents who live in Maryland and work in Virginia and vice versa.  During a major emergency, it is important for jurisdictions to work together to ensure the safety of residents, whatever their current location. If jurisdictions aren’t on the same emergency notification system, they may not have same data pools, which can result in one community notifying residents one way, while another notifies residents the opposite way. With the same system, residents and officials can travel from one community to the other and already be familiar with that county’s emergency notification system.

When Winter Storm Jonas hit the Northeast in January 2016, for example, officials in the National Capital Region were able to engage with residents before and throughout the storm -- improving severe weather awareness and adherence to emergency announcements.

The power of communication cannot be underestimated in ensuring a safe community, region or state. Quick, reliable communications are critical for neighboring municipalities to successfully operate during both emergency situations and day-to-day activities. If communities focus on adoption, education and functionality, they can be better prepared to handle whatever disasters come their way.

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