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9-1-1 Magazine: Managing Emergency Communications

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Extending The Reach Of Warnings & Notifications Via A "Layered" Approach To Crisis Communications

Author: John Von Thaden, VP/GM, Federal Signal Corporation

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2014-03-07
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Times have changed dramatically since emergency warning and mass notification depended almost exclusively on outdoor sirens and broadcast radio and television.  Public safety officials responsible for alerting citizens in the event of a disaster now have access to an expanded scope of communication resources.  This covers everything from landlines, cell phones and text messaging, to two-way radio, public address/intercom systems, outdoor message boards and strobe lights, to the full range of IP-based communications, including email and instant messaging as well as social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

The popularity of SMS, social media and other internet messaging mediums have substantially expanded opportunities to manage emergency events.  This is evident in the rapid development of interoperable, network-based, multi-device communications systems such as Federal Signal Corporation's SmartMsg™.  It can also be seen in the integration of third-party notification alerts (i.e., National Weather Service (NOAA) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as well as the ongoing deployment of IPAWS, the national Integrated Public Alerting and Warning System.)

Though new technologies and messaging formats broaden the overall reach of crisis communications in both natural and man-made disasters, they also present inherent challenges.  True, there are now more ways to communicate than ever before.   However, it is also apparent that citizens are not necessarily always on the same channel when it comes to urgent warnings and mass notifications.  Put another way: though communicating with "someone" may indeed be easier, achieving dependable communications with "everyone" on a moment’s notice during a fast-breaking crisis is more complicated than ever.

Clearly no single alerting method offers a failsafe way to reach everyone in a crisis.  This is precisely why today's most effective emergency alerting/ notification strategies are comprised of multiple forms of communication, or what is now commonly referred to as "communication layers."


Issuing an emergency alert does not necessarily guarantee that everyone who needs to be reached is listening, understands the messaging or is paying attention.

Different people have different preferences for how they want to receive alerts in a crisis.  These preferences have been identified in studies such as Federal Signal Corporation's Annual Public Safety Surveys.  For instance, this research has consistently demonstrated that tech savvy 18 to 29 year olds prefer to be alerted by a text message, while most baby boomers and senior citizens prefer an email, voice message or broadcast warning.

Beyond generational differences, there are a host of factors that not only influence citizens' preferences, but also the subsequent development of the multi-layered approach to emergency alerting and notification.  These factors include the special needs of the elderly and physically handicapped, most notably persons with hearing and sight deficiencies.   There are also the needs of non-English speaking residents.  Often overlooked by many municipalities is the ability to effectively warn and notify tourists and visitors who may not be familiar with local emergency alerting protocols.

The varied messaging formats accompanying the new technologies continue to drive the latest generations of first-responder communications and citizen warning and mass notification systems.  Still, it is obvious that communication channels must be evaluated in context with highly diverse human factors.  This includes the behavioral habits, perceptions, needs and cultural differences of individuals and whole groups of people.  Consequently, these added layers of communications technology must receive increased scrutiny with regard to the human behavioral factors that both impact their effectiveness and define their role in alerting/mass notification strategies.


Additional layers of communication allow citizens to become increasingly proactive in terms of emergency warning interaction.

Nowadays more and more people are actively engaging in the emergency response process by proactively seeking out information..  This is illustrated in the results of studies going back as far as Federal Signal's 2010 Public Safety Survey in which 32% of respondents indicated they would search the internet and 10% would make a phone call to confirm the initial warning signaled by a siren or radio broadcast.  (Again reflecting younger peoples' comfort level with technology and the future direction of emergency communications, the survey indicated that nearly half of those respondents who would search the internet fall into the 18-29 age group.)

In studying the public's response to hurricane warnings, researchers at Florida International University discovered that people who receive official notification to evacuate the path of the storm will still seek out the counsel of neighbors and friends before taking action.

Similarly, researchers at the University of Buffalo, School of Management stress the importance of trust in students' response to emergency warnings and instructions.  Surveys of more than 600 students as well as dozens of focus groups demonstrated that students are more likely to promptly comply with instructions when they know and trust the source of the warning.  In the absence of that trust students felt compelled to verify information with either parents, peers or known official sources including administrators such as the campus security chief before complying with the alert.  New technology such as SMS texting and social media networks clearly facilitate this growing demand for immediate two-way communications in order to confirm an emergency alert.


Social media networks have taken their place as a critical layer of emergency communications.

It is impossible to overlook the impact social media such as Twitter and Facebook are having on the way people - particularly people in younger age groups -communicate.  According to Federal Signal's 2013 Public Safety Survey , 55% of Americans will use Facebook and 31% Twitter for communications in the event of an emergency.  Survey results such as this have subsequently prompted emergency managers to aggressively integrate this interactive medium of communications into their overall emergency preparedness planning.

An increasingly important layer of emergency communications, social media has already demonstrated its effectiveness in disasters reaching back as far as Hurricane Katrina, the Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake of 2010, and the Japanese earthquake-tsunami of 2011.  More recently, social media proved itself invaluable during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, as well as the typhoon that devastated the Philippines last November.  Emergency managers are no longer asking "if" social media has a place in emergency communications and mass notification but rather "how" it can be implemented to its greatest advantage.

There are two basic categories of social media as it relates to disaster communications.  One is "passive" dissemination of information and receipt of user feedback.  The second category focuses on social media's use across a number of areas:

  • as a tool to issue emergency alerts and notification
  • receive incoming requests for victim assistance
  • monitor user activities and establish situational awareness
  • evaluate uploaded images and maps for damage assessment

Supported by robust mobile devices such as smartphones and iPad tablets, social media represents a layer of communication that enables public safety officials to meet the expectations of citizens by alerting and notifying them at any time and in any place.  Also, IP-based social media networks provide a viable and often more reliable alternative to other communications that may be disrupted during an emergency.  These disruptions may be the result of infrastructure damage such as a down cell tower, or a sudden and overwhelming increase in cell traffic that is common to a rapidly unfolding crisis such as an explosion or school shooting.

Social media also is a layer of communications that facilitates a two-way conversation that can be monitored to gauge the alert effectiveness.  At the same time, social media provides citizens with a quick, easy and reliable way to validate warnings.

According to disaster response research conducted by the University of Colorado, social media enables citizens to "mull over" issued alerts and notifications.  This "e-mulling environment" allows a person to make more-informed decisions about what to do in an emergency that ultimately results in improved response times.

In addition to establishing instant two-way communications during a crisis, social media provides advantages that are not available through other forms of communication.  For instance, the interactive nature of social media networks such as Twitter allow users to provide instantaneous feedback to emergency managers as well as share information with family and friends.  This feedback can prove vital in even the most rapidly developing crisis where minutes or even seconds are critical.


A "layered" approach to emergency communications supports the goal of maintaining sufficient system redundancy while ensuring compatibility with IPAWS.

Despite impressive advances in new technology it is still important to recognize that no single communications system or format guarantees that everyone receives warning in a timely fashion under every circumstance.  And it would be foolish to believe every voice message or email is going to get through during a catastrophic event.

Illustrating the necessity of redundancy in emergency communications, Federal Signal's 2011 Public Safety Survey indicates that 89.5% of Americans would use multiple forms of communication in the absence of landline or cell phone service.  This includes everything from video chat, Twitter and text messaging, to instant messaging, e-mail and Facebook.  Broken down further, 12.5% would text using either their own mobile device or a borrowed one; 2.9% would post a social media update; 15.2% would use e-mail; 4.9% would both text and post a social media update; and 37.5% would do all of the above.

Incorporating redundancy throughout the entire emergency warning/ notification system is obviously critical, and includes maintaining such conventional warning systems as outdoor sirens and links with local broadcast and television stations.

The advantage of a layered approach to communications becomes even more apparent with the deployment of IPAWS.  As an example, the partnership between cell phone companies and government supports emergency communications in the event of an imminent threat to the community.  Since Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) don't require registration, agencies such as NOAA are now able to issue warnings and notifications by cellular phones to citizens in precisely targeted geographic areas.

The increased layers of communication clearly mandate continued investment in advanced network-based, multi-device communication systems like Federal Signal's SmartMsg.  In addition to supporting the national Integrated Public Alerting and Warning System, communication platforms will support increasingly sophisticated levels of operational continuity while enabling emergency managers to initiate imminent-threat warnings across a broad and continually expanding scope of communication devices and media formats.


John Von Thaden is the Vice President/General Manager for Alerting & Notification Systems, a unit of Federal Signal Safety and Security Group. In his current role, Von Thaden has worldwide responsibility for alerting and notification solutions for government, healthcare, and industrial markets; which include advanced public warning systems and the SmartMsg unified interoperable communications platform. He has held positions in marketing, sales, and advanced solution development during his 15-year tenure with Federal Signal.


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