Developing a community’s confidence in an opt-in emergency notification system is essential to success, but not having complete buy-in from the users of the system can slow its development as well.
Ottawa County, Mich., emergency management and first responders faced both of those when they implemented the Smart911 system, developed by Rave, in 2014. But momentum seems to be picking up with public safety and emergency management personnel solidly behind the system and the public headed in that direction too.
Just under 5,000 residents have signed on to the system, but last week more than 200 signed up in a 24-hour period, which was “great progress,” according to the county’s Emergency Management Director Nick Bonstell.
Bonstell said initially that there was a bit of “misunderstanding” among public safety personnel in the county when the system was first deployed as well but that has also changed.
He said, in general, emergency management and public safety personnel can be overwhelmed with all the technology that’s available until they understand how it can help them. That might have been the case early on in Ottawa.
“What it comes down to is an understanding of what the system actually does,” he said. “It’s a pretty confusing time to be in the emergency response field if you don’t grasp technology very well.”
With Ottawa response personnel fully on board, the attention turns to the public to sign up for a system that could save lives.
“It’s a huge asset, and now that [response personnel] understand how it works and what an asset it is, they’re more eager to get people on the system and it’s really starting to ramp up to where we’re getting a lot of information out and more people signed up,” Bonstell said.
Rave Prepare is a vulnerable needs registry, where citizens can sign up and include special needs, such as medical dependencies, electrical needs, etc., that Ottawa uses along with Rave Alert.
“Rave Alerts allows us to take opt-in users and communicate with them,” Bonstell said. “We can send text messages, emails, and it’s got a voice transcribe system function on it where I type the email and the computer calls their phone and it’s an automated voice that talks to them.”
Along with the nearly 5,000 county residents signed up, there are more than 400 Rave facility profiles in the system for schools, businesses and municipal facilities. These profiles contain information, such as floor plans, building plans, contact information, data on pets, medical information, etc., entered into the system by those entities.
The system allows users to create templates for evacuations or shelter-in-place beforehand to use during the appropriate times.
One of the key features is the ability to create a geo-fence boundary of any size, alert everyone within that boundary and know, from the registry, who needs special care.
Bonstell categorizes the alerting in a three-tiered structure.
One is the day-to-day messaging, the “bulletin board sort of stuff.”
Another includes things like SWAT and diving team call-outs and activations, where the system is used instead of using dispatch channels. This includes road closures, culvert damage and the like, where “you may not get a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) but it’s an emergency management message,” Bonstell said.
The third structure is the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System and WEA messages.
With the system in place and first responders and public safety people on board, the task is convincing the public to sign up.
“People are already getting sick of jumping from one system to another and having to resubmit their profiles,” Bonstell said. “It takes a long time.”
He said staff and volunteers will be engaging the public at events to try to get sign ups and sending out media releases to alert people to the benefits.
“Some people may not have the technical abilities to sign up,” he said. “I’m always thinking of our frail and elderly population, who are homebound and may not really know how to fill out these profiles but they’re probably the people who most need to know about it.”