The scope of news and information that municipalities need to share with citizens runs a vast continuum. Leaders owe it to citizens to communicate everything ranging from engagement opportunities (such as seasonal openings of parks and recreation event scheduling) to mild inconveniences (such as changes to brush pick-ups) to life-threatening emergencies (such as an active shooter in the community). While mass notification systems such as CivicReady® can accommodate the creation and distribution of both routine and emergency alerts, public safety and communication system administrators need to know what type of scenario constitutes a true emergency, and what notification restrictions apply to all other warning messages.
As Part I of this series outlines, municipalities could be subject to penalties and fines under the TRACED Act for misuse of voice and text alerts in non-emergency situations. Part II of this series outlines the necessary differences between routine and emergency alerts and guides mass notification administrators through the proper use of technology to avoid TRACED Act violations.
What is an Emergency Alert?
A true emergency that validates the use of an emergency alert sent via mass notification technology is one that communicates actionable information or a warning in a situation in which there is an immediate threat to the health and safety of individuals in the community, whether the incident is currently happening (a tornado), or it is imminently anticipated (a hurricane).
What is a Routine Alert?
All other news, information, and warnings may be considered routine alerts. This broad communication category encompasses everything from boil water advisories, to a blocked intersection due to a traffic accident, to a canceled board meeting. For communicators, another critical distinction is that non-emergency alerts apply to incidents that already occurred, such as a road closure due to a downed power line or a water main break. When considering if the information you need to communicate constitutes an emergency or a routine warning, ask yourself the following discerning clarification questions:
- Is there an immediate threat to citizen safety? (Emergency)
- Could this event result in the direct loss of life? (Emergency)
- Does this event constitute an inconvenience that does not pose a direct threat to loss of life? (Routine)
- Is this information intended to be used in a possible future emergency? (Routine)
Why is the Distinction Between Emergency and Routine Alerts Critical?
The TRACED Act protects consumers from receiving non-solicited communications via voice or text message alert. This regulation means that if you issue routine, non-emergency communications to citizens who have not subscribed to receive notifications from your administration, you could be at risk of penalties.
The bottom line for mass notification technology administrators: send routine alerts to subscribers only. If there is a true emergency, you can send a warning alert to all citizens in your database, even if they have not opted-in to communications from your office.
Penalties for TRACED Act Non-Compliance
The TRACED Act allows for civil forfeiture penalties for violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and up to $10,000 in additional penalties for intentional violations. It also allows the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) two to four years to bring actions for civil forfeiture penalties related to knowingly providing misleading or inaccurate caller identification information. This allowance means the length of time within which administrations might be eligible for penalties is broad, putting them at greater risk for financial consequences unless they modify their notification protocols to comply with TRACED Act requirements as soon as possible.
Click here for guidance getting citizens subscribed to your mass notification system.
SMS Short Codes and TRACED Act Text Message Compliance
To comply with TRACED Act text messaging requirements of non-emergency information with subscribers, you will need to leverage an SMS short code or common short code (CSC) (note: for entities that utilize a mass notification system, this capability should be built into your tool, and your solution partner can help you ensure compliance). CSCs are five to six-digit numbers that mask the caller’s ID and allow entities to opt subscribers into their communication system.
All CSCs must be registered with the U.S. Common Short Code Administration (CSCA), a national governing body. Individual businesses, brands, entities, and municipal administrations can register a specific CSC for their sole use. For example, the retail pizza chain Pizza Hut uses the dedicated CSC of 69488 for all text communications. With this approach, all recipients know texts from that number are legitimate messages from Pizza Hut. As an alternative, entities can elect to share a CSC with other entities. Under this model, each authorized user receives a unique SMS keyword to use in tandem with the CSC.
CTIA –The Wireless Association governs all U.S. based SMS messaging. The entity has created a Short Code Compliance Handbook that offers text message marketing best practices for brands and businesses. For local governments that are using text message alerts to inform citizens and not sell products, what is crucial is for all text messages to include opt-out mechanism functionality. More specifically:
- When a citizen opts-in to receive notifications, alerting entities must immediately send a single opt-in confirmation message verifying the enrollment
- Alerting entities must provide a functioning opt-out mechanism at opt-in and regular intervals, and must send a final confirmation message after a successful opt-out
- Your CSC must automatically respond to opt-out keywords HELP and STOP
Best Practices for Formatting Your Emergency and Routine Alerts
No matter what new information or guidance you need to communicate with citizens, you want it to be actionable, informative, and valuable; otherwise, citizens may opt-out of future notifications. When crafting your warning message content, specify:
- The hazard. Be clear what the threat is and how it is putting your community at risk, e.g., “The area north of highway ten is expected to receive 8- 10 inches of freezing rain, which could create icy travel conditions.”
- The location of the threat. Name the impacted neighborhood, intersection, borough, or address. For example, if there is an active shooter, include the address where gunfire broke out, and in what direction the suspect fled.
- The timeframe of the expected issue. Your citizens will need to plan accordingly. If a primary intersection must close to repair a streetlight, give the estimated time of the closure in hours, not just dayparts.
- The source. Even though citizens should know that their municipal public safety office is issuing an alert, lend authority to your warning messaging by clarifying the source of information. For example, “The City Police Department has issued a Silver Alert.”
- Actionable instructions. If loss of life is possible, give citizens clear guidelines for what actions they need to take, such as shelter in place.
Per SMS standards, do not exceed 160 characters in your text message alert. If you need to provide more information, such as a detailed description of a possible AMBER AlertTM suspect and their vehicle, ensure your mass notification system will generate a link to full message details.
For additional guidance on getting citizens subscribed to receive mass notifications, click here.
How CivicReady is Supporting CTIA and CSCA Compliance
CivicReady meets all CTIA and CSCA compliance requirements. Clients may choose to obtain a custom five or six-digit short-code for review and approval by the FCC and all cellular carriers or a ten-digit direct-inward dial (DID) number for text message communications. Options include either a random or vanity short code to be leased from the U.S. Short Code Administration. Typically, short codes may be leased quarterly.
Once the short code is obtained, CivicReady will work with the municipal administration to have it provisioned with all cellular carriers. This step requires the submission of applications to individual carriers requesting that the code be activated on their network, a process that typically takes between eight to twelve weeks. Once approved by all carriers, CivicReady officially activates the code and connects it to the applicable account.
If you’re ready to migrate to a modern mass notification system backed by a helpful tech support team, talk to us today.