Alerts & Notifications

Our 2011 Top Ten Alert and Warning Stories

Galain Solutions, Inc. has released its list of Top Ten Alert and Warning Stories of 2011. Although not all positive stories, 2011 was a year of progress.

by Rick Wimberly / December 28, 2011

It wasn't all pretty, but 2011 was a year of progress toward stronger alerting for the nation. The federal government’s alerting initiatives moved forward, offering promise that in 2012 local public safety officials and the publics they serve will start seeing benefits.  Interesting alerting legislation was considered in 2011 at both federal and state levels.   More alerting programs for older adults were established.  And, the alert and warning industry showed signs of progressiveness and health.  Even the more negative alert and notification news of the year helped move the nation closer to more effective alerts for the public.  2011 wasn’t a perfect year, but a good one nonetheless.

Here are our Top Ten Alert and Notification Stories of 2011…

1.    First national test of Emergency Alert System conducted

The fact that, after over fifty years of existence, what’s now known as EAS was tested nationally for the first time was significant enough to lead our 2011 Top Ten.  But, even more significant in our opinion, was the extent of the national dialogue the test created.  EAS participants (broadcasters, cable operators, etc.) were all abuzz about the test.  They generated lots of pre-test publicity, so much so there were no reports of public over-reaction to the test.  (See post here.)  

Yes, there were technical glitches during the test, but we believe the test was a success.  (See post here.) Technical issues are often easier to fix than process and human behavior issues, and in this case, processes worked and human behavior couldn’t have been better.  Pre-test collaboration, preparation, and outreach were very impressive and the public responded quite well indeed.

In addition to helping clean up EAS, we think the national buzz will help set the stage for interest in other national alert and warning buzz-worthy events that appear imminent in 2012.

2.    Mobile Device Alerting Progresses 

More signs emerged that a national system for issuing alerts through mobile devices is really happening.  This helps tackle one of the most perplexing problems for local officials – getting the public to sign up for alerts.  Under the new initiative, sign-ups by the public won’t be necessary. 

Early-stage tests of The Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), which some people call the Personal Localized Alert Network (PLAN), occurred in one of the most demanding alert environments in the country, New York City.   The New York City tests in December seemed to go well.  (See post here.)

Although some CMAS-related tests were conducted in 2010, the 2011 NYC test was the first one that used the message gateway FEMA is building for CMAS and other alerting systems through its IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) program.

In 2012, we expect word to start spreading about how local officials can start using CMAS/PLAN and other IPAWS capabilities.

3.    Vendors Jump on IPAWS Bandwagon

In order to give local public safety officials ability to use the new federal alerting system offered through IPAWS, commercial vendors must be involved. Their technology will be needed to give local alerting authorities tools for activating alerts through IPAWS.  Commercial systems will also be needed to disseminate alerts to the public. 

Vendor involvement in IPAWS grew significantly in 2011.  Over fifty commercial vendors signed up to be part of the IPAWS program.  (See post here.)  That means they’re adapting their systems so they can send and receive IPAWS alerts.  We’ve seen a couple of vendors demonstrate their IPAWS capabilities.  The demos were impressive.   Vendors will likely get aggressive showing off their IPAWS capabilities in 2012.

Meantime, the list was released in 2011 of the cell carriers who’ll participate in the CMAS/PLAN program.  The line-up is strong.  Most carriers are participating.  Most of the nation will be covered.  (See post here.)

4.    New Terror-Alert System Unveiled

The color-coded national alert system was dumped, and a new system unveiled in 2011.  (See post here.) The new system is much more simple.  There are only two alert levels – “Imminent Threat” and “Elevated Threat”.  Plus, the “National Terrorism Advisory System” (NTAS) is to be more specific – providing information on geographic areas and likely targets. 

5.    Virginia Tech Fined

A $55,000 fine was levied in 2011 against Virginia Tech University for waiting too long to warn students of danger the day of the 2007 shootings on the campus.  Virginia Tech appealed saying its actions “were well within the standards and practices in effect at that time”.  At the same time an appeal hearing was being held in December, another shooting occurred on campus leaving two dead including a campus police officer.  Virginia Tech’s enhanced campus alerting systems were reported by most to have worked well during the December incident.

Virginia Tech now has a comprehensive alert system that uses phone alerts, desktop alerts, emails, web sites, electronic message boards, sirens and loudspeakers.  The University’s adoption of a comprehensive, multi-modal alerting system using all types of devices is indicative of an aggressive move among higher education that matured quite nicely in 2011.

6.    Congress Watches the Progress, Wants More

The topic of alerts and warnings was popular on Capitol Hill in 2011.  Several Congressional hearings were held, and new alerting legislation was introduced.  Among the topics from Capitol Hill:

  • National EAS Test:  Congress heard testimony on what worked with the national EAS test, and what didn’t.  Technical glitches and remedy plans were explained.  (See post here.) 
  • FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate testified to Congress that CMAS/PLAN is one of the “great strides” made since enactment of the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act.  (See post here.)
  • National alerting legislation:  Legislation was introduced in the House and is expected in the Senate that would strengthen the nation’s alerting system.   The House bill establishes a clear framework and timetable for FEMA’s modernization of its public alerts and warning system through the IPAWS program.  (See post here.)    
  • Public Safety Awareness of EAS:  Congress was told by a broadcast leader that it’s “unacceptable that some local emergency managers remain unaware of the benefits of EAS, or how and when to trigger an EAS alert”. (See post here.)
  • IPAWS/CMAS Training Status:  The House subcommittee on emergency preparedness questioned FEMA officials on the status of training for IPAWS and CMAS/PLAN.   (Training has since been unveiled.)  (See posts here and here.)

7.    A Hot Topic Among States, Too.

Federal legislators weren’t the only ones talking about alerts and warnings.  Several states contemplated laws that would establish alerting procedures for older adults.  One passed a law to alert the public when a suspect in a law enforcement officer assault is at large.  And, another state considered limiting the use of alerting systems.

The State of New York created the “Gold Alert” program.  Similar legislation was introduced in Tennessee.  The National Silver Alert Program says over thirty states have laws in place for alerting the public when an older adult is missing.  (See post here.)

Pennsylvania expanded its missing persons alert programs by creating the “Missing Endangered Person Advisory System”.  It’s designed to help find missing people whose cases don’t meet stringent Amber Alert criteria.  The Pennsylvania system’s criteria is quite broad - “to help find people in unexplained, involuntary or suspicious circumstances who may be in danger”. 

California put into place a “Blue Alert” law in 2011.  It alerts the public when a law enforcement officer has been seriously assaulted and the suspect is on the loose.  (Three other states have similar laws.)  (See post here.)

In North Carolina, the head of the state insurance department pledged to take the lead for a statewide warning system after storms killed 22 people in the state.  (There’s still not fact, no statewide alerting systems in many states.)  (See post here.)

Meantime, Connecticut considered legislation that would restrict the use of alerting systems.  The bill’s sponsor wanted to make it clear that authorities should not use their alerting systems for “non-emergencies”.   The bill died in committee.  (See posts here, here, and here.)

8.    Study Shows Voice over Text Preference

Pew Research Center released a study in 2011 that showed that most American adults prefer voice calls over text messages on their mobile devices.  Although 53% said they prefer voice, 31% said they prefer text and 14% said their preference depends upon the situation.  (See post here.)

9.    Grand Jury Finds Limits in Alert System

The Santa Barbara County (CA) Civil Grand Jury said it found “inherent” limits in the county’s automated telephone call-out system, but seemed equally concerned about internal communications regarding alerts.  “Verification issues” slowed down communications during major wildfires, said the Grant Jury’s report in Spring of 2011.  The Grand Jury also found shortcomings in public education.  (See post here.)

10. Investment Firms Show Interest in Alert and Warning Market

Despite a slow economy, the alert and warning commercial markets generated quite a bit of interest from investors.  A number of investment firms were actively seeking investments in the alert and warning space in 2011.  The Riverside Company bought Emergency Communications Network/Code Red.  One of Riverside’s executives said they expect “emergency notification to remain an important part of broader public safety programs” and would like to consider other similar acquisitions.  (See post here.)  Other similar announcements could come in 2012.

Finally, so there you go.  Truth be known, we could have listed even more.  It was an eventful year with 2012 promising to be even more eventful.  We should all pay attention to the coming year’s good alerting news and bad news.  We should take advantage of new opportunities, and learn from the problems.  We should continue to want more and better, and insist on the same from the many others who have a vested interest.   We shouldn’t let the challenging economic times stand in our way.

As for us, we thank-you for a very successful 2011 for Galain Solutions, Inc. We’ve been involved in some very interesting, sometimes challenging, alert and warning consulting engagements in 2011.  Our following on our Emergency Management blog constantly gets larger.  We appreciate those of you who follow us, pass us around, give us feedback (even if negative) and express your support.  We are particularly appreciative of the wonderful Marty Pastula and the other fine people at award-winning Emergency Management magazine.  It’s a true pleasure to be associated with such an outstanding publication that serves so many so well.

All the best, and Happy New Year!  Let's all resolve to make alerts, warnings, and notifications even stronger in 2012.

Rick and Lorin