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Why Your Public Safety Agency needs an Emergency Notification System

Author: Jeremy Smith & Chris Leonard

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2018-01-12
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Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are somber reminders of the critical importance of effective citizen communication. These recent tragedies have public safety agencies nationwide reviewing their crisis communications systems and plans. While many agencies today have implemented emergency notification systems as part of these plans there are still many communities that have not. Moreover, many agencies that have implemented an emergency notification systems may not be utilizing them to their full potential.

When you consider nearly half of people still have landline phones and a whopping 95% of Americans own a mobile phone, an emergency notification system becomes the single, most effective way to reach as many people as possible in an emergency. And, the truth is, when public safety agencies activate these systems at the most appropriate times, they realize a greater return on investment (ROI).

The Three Most Important Public Safety Use Cases for Emergency Notification Systems

For emergency notification systems that offer ease of access and use, there are countless ways to utilize their power and reach. That said, public safety agencies have found that the following four use cases provide the most value for their emergency notification system.

1. Disaster, Emergency & Crime Notifications

The most traditional usage of an emergency notification system is to provide critical alerts to city, county or regional residents. Common alerts include those for natural disasters, such as for tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires, or man-made events, such as HAZMAT spills or hostage situations. Instructions in these events may advise recipients to shelter-in-place, evacuate, or take other similar actions.

Another instance is for crime notifications. The reason may be to deliver information from citizens and businesses regarding burglaries and other crimes to help them take necessary precautions. At the same time, the system offers greater benefit when used to solicit information as part of investigations or crime prevention efforts.

2. Safety Precautions

Dangerous situations can often be avoided when using the emergency notification system to remind citizens to stay safe. For example, many agencies utilize their system to warn citizens living in neighborhoods where sexual predators are moving in. This proactive approach guarantees that people are aware and take the necessary steps to protect themselves and their families. In other cases, agencies may use their emergency notification system to provide boil-water announcements or information regarding power outages.

3. General Announcements

Given the recent natural disasters, it’s easy to see the need to warn citizens of road closures and other hazardous conditions before, during, and even after a major weather event. Yet, emergency notification systems can also be used for other non-emergency closures, such as for parades or other community celebrations, reducing traffic to these areas to avoid an actual emergency. Further, after a major weather event, 9-1-1 Call Centers can become inundated with calls regarding the safety of drinking water or the availability of utility services. To minimize these types of calls, many agencies use their emergency notification system to proactively communicate information to the public, letting them know these details, including the precise steps to take to stay safe.

4. Team Mobilization. An unexpected use case for an emergency notification system is the activation of agency staff. This may be in recalling 9-1-1 dispatchers, mobilizing SWAT or HAZMAT teams, or organizing volunteers. This allows public safety agencies to provide faster, better coordinated response and removes the manual responsibility from other staff. This communication can and should be integrated into your emergency operations and crisis communication plans. With a dedicated focus on the situation at hand, all public safety personnel can tend to what matters most – the safety of their communities.

Must-Have Features of an Effective Emergency Notification System

When considering an emergency notification system for public safety use there are a few features that are important to consider. The list should also serve as a high-level checklist for other agencies only now considering an emergency notification system.

Map-Based Alerting/Geo-Fencing 
When notifying the public of impending natural disasters or similar events, it is helpful to be able to leverage a map-based alerting scenario. By drawing a polygon on an affected area (e.g., a neighborhood in a flood plain), public safety agencies can ensure they alert the right people. This is known as geo-fencing, and it is an important feature to consider because it allows agencies to be more precise with targeted alerts.

IPAWS Integration
The FEMA IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert Warning System) network facilitates Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), including the Emergency Alert System (EAS), Non-Weather Emergency Message (NWEM), and Collaborative Operating Groups (COG-to-COG). These alerts extend the reach of emergency notification systems and safeguard those traveling to other areas. For example, WEA messages are broadcast from local cell towers, so anyone within range of the tower receives the message, regardless of whether they are registered in the local system. Integration with FEMA’s IPAWS standard provides public safety agencies the ability to communicate emergency broadcasts of critical information during natural disasters or even Amber Alerts.

Self-Registration Portal
 A Self-Registration Portal (SRP) allows citizens to proactively provide their contact information via the web to receive alerts. The tool should be a customizable tool to support agency branding and which device information they wish to collect, including cell phone numbers and/or email addresses, which will ultimately increase the odds of successful message delivery. It should also provide the means for citizens to choose the types of non-emergency messages that they would like to receive (e.g., road closures).

Final Thoughts

No public safety agency or municipality should be without an emergency notification system today. From natural disasters, to gas leaks, chemical spills and more, the need to instantly communicate with your citizens is more important than ever. Moreover, using the emergency notification system to activate personnel like the SWAT team or communicate critical information like road closures have become necessary tools in the hands of our cities and county emergency managers and public safety agencies.


About the Authors
Jeremy Smith, CISSP is the general manager of the Emergency Notification System division of Airbus DS Communications. He has over 20 years working in technology, nearly 15 of which he’s dedicated to emergency communications for the public safety, cyber security and commercial industries. His expertise has been called on by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) for various working groups, and he teaches courses on business continuity, Cyber Security and emergency management, among other related topics, in his spare time. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter  or on LinkedIn.

Chris Leonard began his career in Emergency Notification in 2000, devoting several years to quality assurance and engineering. He now serves as an account manager with Airbus DS Communications, a role that has allowed him to help hundreds of organizations improve their emergency and routine communications. You can follow Chris on LinkedIn



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