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Community Engagement Is The Key To Successful Emergency Notification Solutions

Author: Scott Benoit

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2015-09-02
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As we recognized the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and its devastation of New Orleans this past August, it’s an appropriate time to revisit emergency notification plans to ensure communities are prepared should a severe weather event occur. Communication and collaboration among public safety departments and emergency management officials are essential in developing an effective disaster response protocol. As we remember the major storms of the past few decades - and the names Katrina, Sandy, even Bob, won’t soon be forgotten - let us first look at some of the lessons learned from these historic natural disasters, and then review some important tips on how to successfully communicate critical information to the community during an emergency.

August, 2005: Members of California Task Force-4, from Oakland Fire, prepare to launch inflatable boats into the flooded streets of downtown New Orleans, looking for trapped persons. While these swiftwater rescue components of the national US&R response worked well at the team level, large-scaled organizational and communications deficiencies were noted and analyzed in detail afterwards, including community notification concerns. Photo by Robert Eplett/Calif OES/9-1-1 Magazine file photo (0601)

Lessons Learned  

Following Katrina, then-president George W. Bush called for an extensive review of the response by the Federal government, and numerous deficiencies were identified. The report shed a national spotlight on the need for seamless communication between federal, state and local communities, along with the private sector, and individual citizens to ensure that crucial messages are shared in a timely manner. A primary outcome was the mandate that 11 critical actions be taken prior to the start of the 2006 Hurricane season.

Three of those commands dealt directly with community engagement issues: 

  • Ensure that relevant Federal, State, and local decision-makers, including leaders of State National Guards, are working together and in close proximity to one another in the event of another disaster;
  • Ensure situational awareness by establishing rapid deployable communications, as well as instituting a structure to consolidate Federal operational reporting with DHS;
  • Employ all available technology to update and utilize the national Emergency Alert System in order to provide the public with advanced notification of and instruction for disasters and emergencies.


Road to Change

Establishing a reliable interagency communications system is a fundamental first step but the real challenge comes with implementing a notification system that not only alerts local officials but also allows them to effectively relay important information to the members of the community. When town or city officials have an emergency alert system that permits a direct delivery of information to residents, officials can ensure that the communication is accurate and can also confirm its receipt. However, the true effectiveness of the system depends upon how many residents elect to receive communications.


Tackling Implementation Challenges

One of the benefits of a scalable and robust unified critical communications system is that it allows public safety and emergency management agencies to create a resident opt-in database, while providing citizens with real-time community information and a forum to share and interact with their neighbors and public officials. In an effort to make emergency notification systems easy to use, and to encourage participation, one solution allows community members to text a specific keyword or text their zip code to a mobile short code to sign up for alerts. Once they opt-in, this system offers users the ability to engage via anonymous tipping and other two-way communication features. The larger the opt-in database the greater the community reach for both neighbors, public safety departments and local officials, which is important when sharing any update but in particular when dealing with an emergency situation.

For example, let’s pretend a category three hurricane is set to hit the coast of North Carolina, the community there can receive and disseminate public service information via a number of different channels including: via social media, websites, email, text, mobile apps, and Google Alerts. This message can then be quickly shared over social media, and again the more community engagement that exists the better the chances are of ensuring that the message is received by the affected parties. More importantly emergency management officials are able to release a controlled, unified message that helps lessen public hysteria. And furthermore, if public safety officers were to order a mandatory evacuation for a specific street or neighborhood a comprehensive unified communication system allows them to pinpoint specific regions or neighborhoods in order to better target the message. 


Issuing an Alert

The most important element of issuing an official emergency notification is establishing a deployment plan in advance of a crisis situation. Going back to Hurricane Katrina one of the major lessons learned was the value of having a plan that consists of a step-by-step procedure for collaboration between federal, state and local agencies, along with clearly defining the responsibilities of each department. This is less of an issue when working on a local scale but even in the smallest of communities it is still of utmost importance to establish protocols for utilizing unified communication systems and to engage and inform the public of their existence.


The Future of Community Engagement

As more law enforcement and local government agencies adopt reliable emergency notification solutions that incorporate community engagement the better equipped we will be at safeguarding against or at the very least managing the response to severe weather events. However, in order for real collaboration and maximum community participation to exist there must be transparency, trust, and mutual respect between all involved.


Scott Benoit is Senior Director, Product Management, at Nixle, an Everbridge Solution.  For more information on Nixle, see



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