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Next-Generation Emergency Alerts — What’s Working Where?

From hurricanes to wildfires, emergency events are getting more destructive and more deadly. States, counties and cities are finding ways to reach a mobile population where they are with the vital information they need.

Wildfires that broke out late the night of Oct. 8, 2017, in Sonoma County, Calif., burned nearly 5,300 homes and killed 24 people. Many survivors received no warning about the fire’s spread, and a review by the state Office of Emergency Services found that the county’s warning system was inadequate to effectively notify residents about an impending natural disaster. 

“Our experience with the fires sparked a national conversation about how much we can expect of these technologies,” said Christopher Godley, Sonoma County’s interim emergency management executive. “What are the realistic goals and performance objectives that we as a community and the public can hope to see these technologies support?”

As smartphones with location-based services become ubiquitous, their use for emergency notifications is expanding — and so are public expectations of what types of alerts local government should send them. Software solutions can now deliver messages to a variety of personal devices and systems in targeted geographic areas. 

Weighing Wireless Alerts

Sonoma County was criticized for not using the Federal Communications Commission’s Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system to notify citizens. Launched in 2012, WEA has been used more than 40,000 times to warn the public about dangerous weather, missing children and other critical situations, according to the FCC. During the fires, however, Sonoma County officials said that WEA was inadequate for ordering evacuations, because it couldn’t target specific neighborhoods. They expressed concern that the alert would reach too many people outside the evacuation area, causing widespread panic and traffic jams.

Most emergency management agencies augment WEA with private-sector solutions such as CodeRED or Everbridge. Although those platforms are feature-rich and can send automated alerts, they reach a limited number of citizens because they require individuals to proactively opt in. (Some jurisdictions augment the opt-ins with other public phone number listings.)

“No notification system is going to do everything you need it to,” said Bryan Koon, former director at the Florida Division of Emergency Management and now a consultant with emergency management firm IEM. “No one is the silver bullet. But when you layer WEA, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, a branded notification solution such as Alert Florida and digital billboards, then you get closer to notifying everyone,” he added.  

One challenge Koon sought to address in Florida was the disparity between counties in terms of alert notification capabilities. The state’s 67 counties were all over the map in terms of the notification systems they were using and those systems’ abilities. “I wanted every county in the state to have the capability to reach out to their citizens, so we bought one system for the entire state. That allowed us to make sure every Floridian was going to receive life-saving information regardless of their county’s economy or size.” And because of economies of scale, he said, it actually cost less than when the individual counties purchased their own systems. 

Another advantage became obvious during 2018’s Hurricane Michael, Koon added. The fact that everyone is using the same system now allows for interplay between jurisdictions. If one jurisdiction loses communications capability, the next one can pick up the slack. “I just visited the emergency operations center in Calhoun County and there were people from Palm Beach and Orange counties working there,” he said. “They all are familiar with the alert system. During the storm, any one of them could help the local staff get that message out.”

Overall, 700,000 people have opted in to Alert Florida, 30,000 of them during Hurricane Michael. By adding phone numbers from other databases, the system contains 10.2 million numbers out of a total population of 20 million in the state.

Imad Mouline, chief technology officer of Everbridge, the vendor of the system that Florida consolidated on, agreed with Koon that emergency managers can’t rely on just one tool. “WEA is an important tool, but it cannot be the only one. It has limitations, in terms of its ability to target with a certain level of granularity, and it is not meant for every type of message,” he said. “Have WEA in your toolbelt, but also have the ability to send text messages as well as ways to push notifications to mobile applications, send emails, make voice calls or light up digital signs and activate sirens. The key is to be able to send all types of alerts directly from the same user interface.”

Mouline added that Florida was an early adopter of the new concept of incident zones. They allow for an emergency manager to draw a “geo-fence” on a map and give it a certain amount of time to live, such as six hours. Anyone in that area can get the notification based on static location information, and users with the mobile app will be notified via location services, he said. “We are dealing with a mobile population and events that are rapidly changing and moving. It is difficult to get that intersection both in space and time and send the appropriate notification.” 

Automated Alerting

Automated weather alerts sent to cellphones through the CodeRED Weather Warning application proved invaluable in Spartanburg County, S.C., when tornadoes touched down in October 2017, said Doug Bryson, the county’s emergency management director. Alerts are sent quite frequently about severe thunderstorm warnings and winter storms, but this was the first time the system was needed for anything of this magnitude. The tornadoes did catastrophic damage to buildings, but the alert worked flawlessly, Bryson said. Once the tornado warning was broadcast, people in the path of the tornadoes got the alert and were able to seek shelter. “No doubt that saved lives,” Bryson said. Between 10 and 15 percent of the county’s citizens have signed up for the alerts, and after every event, hundreds more enroll. 

Bryson said his two-person office also is getting trained on sending out WEA alerts, which it can do directly from CodeRED. “We rely on every tool in our toolbox,” he said. “We are pushing it out on social media, Facebook, Twitter and Nextdoor. With two people, we use every tool we can to push out notices ahead of storms.”

Doubling Down

Based on its internal assessment and feedback from the community, Sonoma County leaders are more than doubling the budget for their warning program, increasing staff time from 400 hours per year to having two dedicated full-time staff who can now focus on how alert warnings are rolled out. “It is a big, bold move,” Godley said. “We may have been on par with other communities in California in terms of alerting capabilities, but that may no longer be good enough,” he added.

The fall 2018 fires in Southern and Northern California demonstrate that alert warning systems can’t yet keep up with the dynamic ferocity of these new wildfires, forcing emergency managers to rethink how they manage such programs. “If we are looking at real impacts from climate change shaping weather hazards or the long-term risk of earthquake, our programs are going to have to be much more robust in their capabilities and much more capable of engaging with the community and delivering alert warnings.”  

David Raths is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.