What 2020 Taught Us About Emergency Communications in Our Communities

Written by Katie Gennaro

After the COVID-19 crisis, local leaders recognize the need to strengthen their network and Wi-Fi infrastructure and technology communication capabilities.

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In 2021, citizens perceive the role that their local government plays in their lives entirely differently from 2019. Citizens who never once visited their county health department or its website today are checking in daily for updates on vaccine availability. Citizens who shirked the offer of regular community updates and notifications have signed up for push notifications, text messages, or phone messages so that they remain aware of changes to community mandates and curfews. And citizens who previously had no interest in attending a town hall meeting are now streaming live sessions from their desktop or tablet because they want to stay informed on civic decisions that could change how they live, work, and educate their children.

With the relationship between local governments and citizens changing dramatically after months marked by a global pandemic and civil unrest, the ways that local leaders and their citizens communicate are changing in accordance. With citizens now more open and desirous than ever of regular communications from their local leaders, we’re learning that other factors need to change, too, to accommodate proactive communications and on-demand information sharing—from infrastructure to access channels.

Communities are Prioritizing Wi-Fi Enhancements to Support Emergency Communication Networks

With parents homeschooling their children, home-office workers attending daily video calls, and decentralized local government workers needing to remain connected and accessible 24/7, many communities recognize the need for improved Wi-Fi infrastructure to accommodate more reliable high-speed communications.

At the state level, many administrations allocated their available Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds to help families with K-12 students at home purchase internet-enabled devices, wireless hotspots, or both. Several states have also dedicated CARES Act funding to create more public internet access points and expand the availability and affordability of residential high-speed internet service, including Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

While it’s still unknown what the future of education, corporate commuting, and telehealth will look like after the pandemic, we should not assume that the need for continued Wi-Fi access will ever diminish, reinforcing the expectation that communities enable Wi-Fi availability to support their online imperative and the needs of their citizens.

The Reinforced Need for FirstNet

Wi-Fi access is also crucial for public service administration. Municipalities have learned that they must ensure adequate communication capabilities for essential workers and emergency respondents as the pandemic and domestic unrest periods lengthen indeterminably.

It is a need that was realized after 9/11 when public safety officials around the country recognized that emergency responders needed to be better equipped to communicate with one another at the scene of an emergency and to reach supervisors and dispatchers in remote office locations. The result of these needs was establishing the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), one of the largest public-private partnership agreements between the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and a collection of companies and carriers. The initiative promised to develop and manage a nationwide wireless broadband network for use by first responders; work that is still ongoing today at the state coordination level.

In areas without FirstNet access, emergency responders must gain access to carrier networks through personal or issued devices and individual contracts, just like other paying customers. When responding to an emergency, they tap into the network with their phone, tablet, or other mobile devices. In a large-scale emergency, however, like 9/11 or a natural disaster, networks can become choked by the influx of voice and data traffic usage, impeding the quality of first responders’ communication capabilities.

As an alternative, first responder traffic on the dedicated FirstNet network receives a preemptive claim on network capacity, ensuring that those on the front lines of responding to a local emergency can effectively coordinate their response efforts and send potentially lifesaving reports back to those responsible for issuing citizen warnings and alerts.

After a year with an unprecedented number of local and national crises, local governments are recognizing the need to support their emergency responders’ communication needs so that in a local emergency, technology never becomes a barrier to safety collaboration and efficiency efforts.

Multi-Channel Emergency Communications are Still Critical

Whether the challenge was one of the eight hurricanes that touched down in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, civil rights protests, or another local emergency, 2020 taught us that to reach as many citizens as possible, of every demographic, technical ability, physical ability, and ethnicity, local governments need multilingual, multichannel communication capabilities.

According to the Pew Research Center, 41 percent of Americans prefer to get their local news from television, while 15 percent rely on social media, 37 percent turn to news websites or applications, 13 percent rely on print, and 8 percent on the radio. Among those who prefer to get their local news online, 82 percent want an easy-to-use website for local online news, while 59 percent say a schedule of local events is important, and 51 percent desire regularly updated social media accounts.

When it comes to emergency alerts, citizen preferences are inherently more simplistic. According to research from The National Academies Press, emergency alerts and warnings that reach citizens through tools and communication devices and channels they are using daily—such as smartphones and social media—are most effective. As our world continues to rely on fragmented but interwoven digital connectivity, any single communication channel is insufficient in alerting the public in an emergency.

As this data underscores, and as communities experienced in 2020, local government public safely communicators must rely on a multichannel communication strategy and tools that enable it to protect and warn their citizens effectively.

Predictions for the Future of Emergency Communications

In the summer of 2020, CivicPlus® partnered in developing and issuing a survey to local government leaders on the next normal in civic service. Three hundred and eighty-six local government officials and staff shared their perspectives on the impacts of COVID-19 on public service delivery. While 76 percent of respondents represented municipalities, insights were also provided by county employees, state officials, utility executives, tribal nation representatives, and special district staff. Insights were provided by individuals from a wide range of roles within local government, including mayors, city managers, planners, fire chiefs, communications directors, and chief innovation officers.

Respondents consistently signaled expectations that local government work and public service delivery has been permanently changed in response to the pandemic. When asked what their impression of the top three to five issues their local government was, is, and will be focusing on, about 15 percent cited community and crisis communications as a priority six months prior. That percentage understandably boomed to over 40 percent, believing it to be a current priority, and just under 30 percent predicting it to remain so in a year.

This data highlights the awareness among local leaders of the need to strengthen their network and Wi-Fi infrastructure and technology communication capabilities. Local government public safety communicators must support first responders and inform citizens as they continue to learn from each moment of crisis and strengthen their ability to respond better and more efficiently to the next emergency. While we cannot hope for a life without disaster, we can prepare for our resilient response with proper planning and investment in the tools and systems needed to protect our communities.