Smartphones: The Next-Generation Emergency Alert System

Modernizing America's emergency alert notification apparatus can be integrated across smartphones and other mobile platforms.

by Timothy Coleman / May 13, 2010
Photoeuphoria |

[Photo courtesy of Photoeuphoria |]

Modernizing America's alert notification apparatus is imperative and can be done by leveraging mobile platforms and smartphone technologies to more effectively disseminate crucial, actionable information to civilians in crisis situations.

Integrating alert notifications across dynamic smartphones and other mobile platforms can be achieved to ensure that an updated system leverages smartphones and geo-location features of mobile systems while also being extremely resilient and optimized for fluid and ever-changing operational environments.

In September 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a less-than-stellar report on the state of affairs of America’s national-level emergency alert system in a report titled Improved Planning and Coordination Necessary for Development of Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. Several important takeaways from the GAO report were:

  • There are limitations in how alerts are disseminated to the public.
  • New technologies have not been adopted.
  • The current alert system relies on a technological backbone that is nearly 50 years old.

Disseminating Relevant Information

According to a recent Pew Research public opinion poll, 26 percent of Americans receive their news and information from cell phones. Additionally the poll found that 43 percent of those under 50 receive news on their mobile phones. These two findings demonstrate an important factor when considering how best to modernize emergency alert notification systems as it has serious implications for enhancing the distribution of timely information. In particular, mobile phone technology adoption rates and the use of these ubiquitous devices as a main informational portal for civilians is a key component to re-engineering future alert systems.

Keeping this in mind, it’s vital to recognize the importance of cell phones and smartphones as a critical link to broadcasting emergency alerts to citizens. In December 2008, 32 percent of consumers used a smartphone. Compare that number with December 2009 when it increased to 42 percent of consumers. The figures are significant as the adoption rate of smartphones is projected by the Nielsen Company, a marketing and media information company, to reach 50 percent and begin to overtake feature phone adoption by the third quarter of 2011.

Dispensing With Legacy Platforms

It’s important to view smartphones and other mobile phone platforms as a critical link for modernizing and improving the effectiveness of emergency alert notification.

Current emergency alert systems largely focus on simple SMS or push notification gateways. This works as a means to dispense vanilla information about a crisis, but it does little to provide visibility, context and guidance. Leveraging the embedded benefits of smartphone technologies allows the next generation of emergency alert notifications to capitalize on GPS and geo-located targeting of alerts.

With a national emergency alert notification system rooted in a piecemeal infrastructure created in part, nearly 50 years ago, it’s no wonder the GAO concluded that “capabilities have remained unchanged” and that FEMA “has made limited progress” in overhauling or modernizing the system.

Additionally Congressional action in 2006 mandated the creation of a Commercial Mobile Alert System, which focused on cellular and pager devises. However, bureaucratic infighting and a refusal to appreciate the increasingly interconnected world of communication devices has hampered significant progress.

The Emergency Alert System, especially at the national level, is wholly inadequate and seems years away from using present-day technology or the obvious civilian preference for mobile devices. The question is whether alert systems should begin to be modernized at the local level.

Creating a New Normal

Emergency management officials need the capability to deliver trustworthy, location-specific information from incident commands directly to the civilian in a crisis. Emergency management authorities need the ability to easily visualize the crisis zone, receive field reports, assess civilian distribution patterns and civilian responses in real time. These kinds of systems will allow authorities to subdivide a region by area code, geography or custom selection, and send information and instructions specific to these areas.

Emergency alerts to smartphones would enable location-specific instructions for evacuation and updates on hazards, points of interest and new reports in real time. Emergency alert systems targeting smartphone users would provide an unparalleled level of actionable information to the affected civilian population. Such alerts would enable an end-user to access libraries of crisis-relevant information on first aid and disaster preparedness and also send out “I’m OK,” “I am hurt,” or “I am trapped” notifications to their social networks.

Using the innate benefits of smartphones as a means to deliver actionable emergency alerts to the civilian populace during a crisis would use the preferred platform that’s becoming the default standard for communications. Given the increasing adoption rate of smartphones throughout the country, it’s conceivable to assume that this trend is just beginning.

To achieve operational agility and use pervasive civilian-centric technologies, cloud computing and the use of various support modules will increasingly become necessary. Ensuring that such systems have built-in redundancies for geo-location message targeting using multiple map providers like Bing, Google, OpenStreetMap, etc. will have to become the standard. Additionally using standard push notification gateways, SMS alerts, and allowing for multiple operating modes for the emergency alert system, depending upon data network availability, will help to ensure the system's utility, resonance and effectiveness.

If all politics are local then perhaps it’s time to drive home the message that the next generation of emergency alert notification systems need to start at the localized incident area of greatest consequence. Ultimately the reality is that with faster data networks and more location-enabled devices, contextual communication during an emergency is possible today. The only real questions that remains are: When will we start to leverage these trends and technologies and will we do that before the next crisis arrives?

About the author: Timothy W. Coleman is co-founder of CiviGuard, a provider of crisis communication platforms that deliver location-aware alerts and guidance to civilians.

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