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Changing Technology: How the Evolving Communication Landscape is Improving Emergency Notifications

Author: Joe Wilson, Federal Signal

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-12-17
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From the way we communicate on a one-to-one basis to the way messages are delivered to larger groups, the communication landscape is changing in communities, across states and even on a larger scale.  As technology continues to evolve, especially in the emergency communication industry, new technologies are replacing, or being integrated with, traditional communication and notification tools to enhance overall systems. Learning from real-life examples, including an emergency such as Hurricane Sandy and the major transformation of Hawaii’s in-progress communication infrastructure project, emergency managers can continue to learn and better navigate through the evolving landscape.


Addressing Technology and Education Needs

Emergency managers are faced with deciding not only which existing equipment and tools to replace or upgrade to most effectively reach their community members, but which new technologies can best encourage citizens to take action.  Advanced technologies and strategies are needed to reach people in multiple ways and reduce or eliminate the disconnect that exists between emergency managers’ public safety objectives and Americans’ emergency-related attitudes and behaviors.

Relying on a single method of communication during an emergency is no longer an option for today’s emergency managers.  Consider the diverse factors that make up U.S. communities, including multiple spoken languages, people with disabilities, a spectrum of ages and technical abilities, and much more. To effectively communicate with the varying communication preferences and needs of all individuals and improve overall public safety alertness and response, emergency managers must maintain flexibility and address complacency factors.

Lack of knowledge undoubtedly plays a role in the public’s reaction to emergency warnings.  A recent Federal Signal Public Safety Survey show that, while 56 percent  of Americans believe they are aware of the steps they need to take should disaster strike, more than one in four does not know whether their community has an emergency warning siren system.  Not surprisingly, there continues to be a related lack of urgency around emergency preparedness.

However, the survey also spotlights the trends and growing influence of mobile devices for emergency communications, finding that nearly one-third (29 percent) of respondents ages 18-29 preferred text messages to any other form of emergency notification.  Not only can text messages reach community members instantly, but technology like Federal Signal’s GeoSpear application allows for location-based messages to be sent to a specific geographic area. 

While the most effective ways to communicate are becoming more apparent, different groups are beginning to adopt new technologies and educate citizens on emergency preparedness. For example, local news stations have started promoting their roll-out of these types of services.  As text messaging capabilities become increasingly personalized, recipients may be more likely to respond to these tailored, real-time emergency notifications. In addition, education and outreach programs are also encouraging the public to proactively participate in matters concerning safety. For example, government sponsored programs like the Iowa Security and Emergency Management department are working with the National Weather Service to implement state-wide tornado drills and introduce a series of podcasts to cover a variety of severe-weather safety issues.


Learning from the Past

Each year tragic natural disasters put entire regions, many with increasing populations, at risk. Because the threat of disasters will never cease, emergency managers must continue to learn the best approaches in managing communications during and after critical moments.

Text messages enable emergency managers, and also consumers, to send secure mass notifications to cell phones, smartphones and tablets, without reliance on voice channels or enterprise email servers.  During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, FEMA encouraged the use of text messages to connect with loved ones, rather than direct phone calls. Unlike voice messaging that requires manual re-dialing, text messages remain in queue and increase the likelihood of transmission, critical for communication when other networks may be slow or inoperable. 

The prominence of social media updates throughout Hurricane Sandy points to the growing reliance on these platforms for real-time emergency updates and news.  New technology has also enabled sirens to work more effectively, by incorporating modern software into new and existing siren infrastructures.  Today’s cellular and satellite networks equip sirens to communicate through tones, text-to-voice, pre-recorded audio and more, allowing emergency managers to customize communications and effectively reach more people.

In the example of Hurricane Ike in Galveston, Texas in 2008, an article by Andrea Thompson in Live Science reviewed the failure of many of Galveston’s citizens to respond and comply to the evacuation warnings.  It was found that “some think they can ride out the winds and surging waters,” and “others remember unnecessary evacuations from botched forecasts, and enter a ‘boy who cried wolf' mentality.” To effectively and efficiently connect with an entire community, emergency managers need to take inventory of their existing communications plan, and see how new technologies may be able to fill the gaps.



Hawaii’s Cutting-Edge Upgrade

In a first-of-its kind system, Federal Signal has recently completed the first phase of a fully integrated statewide siren network in Hawaii. The emergency warning and communications system covers the largest geographical area of any U.S. system, and the implications of the technology spread far beyond Hawaii.

A state like Hawaii faces unique challenges in terms of natural disasters and warning systems. Not only is its  location prone to tsunamis, which can require  immediate evacuations, but the complex geography and fragmented landscape add an extra level of challenge in ensuring an adequate communication system is in place. Using satellite and cellular-based communications to replace existing VHF, trunked radio networks and aging siren equipment, a new state-of-the-art infrastructure will provide the state with the ability to monitor all sirens from a centralized location.

Hawaii’s previous system was compromised of a variety of product ages and versions with different capabilities; this approach was insufficient for an integrated communications system. A modern, hybrid system that integrates multiple systems and networks will now allow customized communication – from statewide alerts to local community notifications – at the touch of a button.  Using connected, streamlined technologies, the system will eventually cover six islands spanning more than 300 miles. 

For Hawaii, this drastically improves the effectiveness of the emergency warning and communication system.  For the industry and future of emergency communication, this system shows an advancement of technologies and symbolizes the next generation of advanced, hybrid technologies that will help keep communities better protected in emergencies and natural disasters. As states and communities continue to update communication systems, Hawaii can serve as a standard of best practices in implementing new, integrated technology.

From satellite and cellular communications systems to broadband and text messages, new technology enables emergency managers to communicate in faster and more streamlined ways. By creating an emergency notification system with customized messages that can reach community members in multiple forms, emergency managers have a much better likelihood of turning lack of awareness and apathy into informed, urgent action.


Joe Wilson is president of Federal Signal’s Industrial Systems Division, Safety and Security Group. He also oversees the Integrated Systems Group, a department that provides global custom-engineered solutions for communications, life safety and security, and is responsible for the Alerting & Notification Systems, a global leader in mass notification solutions.  For more information, see:


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