The dangers facing local governments have never been more threatening. 2017 saw the largest mass shooting in American history alongside record-breaking hurricanes and wildfires. At a time when citizens have the capability of being more easily connected to one another and their local leaders than ever before, local government public safety managers are looking to leverage every possible communication channel to warn, inform, instruct, and safeguard citizens.
As technology has evolved and advanced so has the capability of communicating urgent information using a multi-channel, device-agnostic public alert strategy. What follows are the three mass notification system technology trends that are redefining how public safety managers are keeping citizens safe and informed in a world of growing threats.
Establishing More Detailed and Structured Protocols for Mass Notification Solution Use
Mass notification systems, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), have been proven effective as technology tools that enable public safety managers to reach residents and travelers with life-saving information and instructions. In the wake of two widely discussed misuses of such systems, many local governments are taking the time to redefine their protocols and policies for mass notification use to ensure the tools are used efficaciously.
On Saturday, January 13, 2018, residents of the state of Hawaii spent an agonizing 38 minutes believing they were about to be the victims of a missile attack. The panic was caused by an alert distributed from the state’s emergency notification system— a warning that was distributed in error. After investigating the cause of the error, authorities advised that the employee who sent the notification mistakenly believed the state was truly under attack. This Hawaii missile attack miscommunication resulted in feelings of outrage among the misinformed citizens and demands to be better protected from future miscommunications.
In California, recent wildfires resulted in the opposite communication issue. Non-use of local mass notification systems delayed critical evacuation instructions, which put citizens and travelers at risk. In the fall and winter of 2017, 9,133 wildfires ripped across California, making it the most destructive wildfire season on record. The spread of the fires into towns and neighborhoods required the evacuation of many communities—yet digital notifications to citizens were not issued until hours after the blaze began in many areas leaving some residents already trapped. Even when notifications were eventually sent, far too many citizens did not receive them. 44 people were killed in the wine country fires, leaving many to wonder why notifications were not issued earlier.
As a result of these incidents in Hawaii and California, local government public safety managers with access to a mass notification systems are reviewing policies, providing staff training, redefining who is authorized to issue notifications. Their goal is to put systems of checks and approvals in place so that when an emergency does occur, staff know exactly how to access their notification system, craft a message, send a test, and then a live alert—in as few minutes as possible.
Investing in Multilingual Communication Solutions
The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that one in five U.S. residents speaks a foreign language at home. With the high frequency and unexpected nature of local threats growing, local governments can no longer rely on English-only multi-channel mass communications. With so many non-English speaking residents and travelers potentially at risk during an emergency, a growing number of local governments are seeking out mass notification systems with automate multilingual translation capabilities.
A growing number of public safety managers are choosing mass notification solutions that enable subscribers to designate their preferred language from a list of pre-defined options. When an alert is sent, public safety managers only need to craft a message in English. It is then translated, by the system, into the recipient’s language of choice for all channel delivery options including email, text message/SMS, and voice notification. Such technologies eliminate the need for public safety departments to rely on internal translation resources to craft alternate message versions for mass distribution—a process that can delay the dissemination of information and put citizens at risk of human translation error.
Increased Use of Geofencing Technology
During the California wildfires, one community’s public safety personnel initially chose not to issue warning messages due to a discomfort with its notification system’s targeting functionality and a fear that an evacuation message would lead to mass panic and an eventual traffic jam. Further complicating safety efforts, the wine country fire warnings were only issued to those citizens who had preregistered to receive messages from their community’s urgent notification system or those residents in the county’s contact database. Those who had not preregistered and those traveling through the area, were uninformed, a tragic oversight that left many in danger.
To eliminate the fear of overcommunicating safety instructions to those not near the threat, and to maximize the reach of messaging to non-resident travelers entering an impacted area, an increasing number of public safety managers are choosing mass notification technology with geofencing capabilities. Geofencing technology allows authorized personnel to establish physical regions as virtual “fences” and target messages to individuals within those areas. When there is a need to warn residents of a local hazard, geofencing makes it possible to target and reach individuals based on their current location, which may or may not be their home address.
When geofencing technology is integrated into a local notification mobile app, local governments can send notifications to app users within a designated geographic location identified by a specific area on a map indicated using a built-in radius tool. From a citizen end users’ perspective, subscribing to a system with such functionality gives parents the opportunity to receive notifications if the area surrounding their child’s daycare is threatened, for example. For authorities, it maximizes and hyper targets those in danger with critical, life-saving information and instructions.
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