As previously published in Government Security News by Nelson Daza, Director, Product Management, Everbridge.
Did you know that big changes are on the way for the FCC’s Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system?
Recently, Sen. Chuck Schumer expressed dissatisfaction and frustration with the current system after the WEA was used to send a brief 90-character message to cellphone users in NYC alerting them to look out for a suspect by the name of Ahmad Khan Rahami. The message had no links, photos or embedded media which caused many citizens to panic. While clearly not the intention of the FCC, their mass communications technology caused more panic than it alleviated and the organization is looking to make upgrades to ensure this type of situation doesn’t happen again.
Since the Emergency Alert System is vital to our national security and public safety, it should undoubtedly be a state-of-the-art system. There are some EAS devices and protocols that seem to be out of place in our modern era. For example, broadcasters have to purchase and maintain on-premise hardware that has very limited functionality and is very complex to use. Television broadcasters can still only broadcast text information in the form of a ticker tape across the top or bottom of a television set. However, more and more incident information contains richer content, such as images or video, that are not handled by the devices that are currently used. The federal government – and subsequently, all broadcasters – need to start taking steps that will allow them to stop depending on these outdated devices and start using the Internet to deliver emergency messages to television and radio. Not to mention, there are fewer and fewer people left who know how to configure, maintain or use these antiquated appliances.
The ripples of the EAS upgrade will soon be felt at a municipality near you. There’s no denying that we live in a dangerous world today. Active shooter situations and extreme weather conditions seem to be happening with increasing frequency, so mass communications have never been more important. During a crisis, the ability to quickly direct large groups of people can be the difference between life and death. To do that effectively, however, there are key capabilities government officials must have in place prior to a major event. While the FCC hasn’t provided any specifics around what standards it will use for its upgrade, here are three key capabilities that should make the cut.
Multi-Modal Outreach is Critical
A robust, multi-modal mass communications program enables government officials to more accurately and effectively fuel the spread of information during an emergency. Once the communication channels have been decided upon, consider supporting the program through advertising, public relations, social media and even traditional physical media to get the word out about how people can sign up for the program. The FCC should even follow the lead of local communities, such as Lewisville, Texas, where a local emergency management department conducted an extensive awareness program, which included development of marketing materials and a Public Service Announcement (PSA). The awareness program was well received and encouraged residents to enroll their other devices and contact paths. The community saw a 262% increase in resident opt-ins in less than a year.
The Power of Rich, Multimedia Messages
Pictures, graphics and sound clips have permeated our everyday communications alongside plain text, and are a valuable tool in crisis communications. Just think for a moment back to the New Jersey bombing incident. If the FCC were able to issue a picture of the suspect during their communication, local citizens would be empowered to become helpful informants to locating the suspect. People in crisis situations tend to be hyper-focused on any and all stimulus so asking them to take the extra step to locate an image of the suspect via a Google search is a bridge too far for many to cross. The ability to provide people with a succinct synopsis – complete with the who’s, where’s, why’s and how’s – is critical to stomping out uncertainty and panic from the get-go. A picture is worth a thousand words and can serve as a critical piece of information in criminal investigations for police officers.
Real-Time Guidance During a Crisis
Crisis situations are fluid and dynamic. To properly manage an emergency event, specific people need to take decisive actions throughout a prolonged period of time. This requires an immense amount of real-time coordination that is impossible unless an agency or municipality is able to communicate with targeted groups during an incident. EAS should incorporate the fundamentals of two-way communication, and targeted notification capabilities, where possible.
As an example, let’s imagine an active shooter situation within a government building. Government officials could quickly communicate with security personnel to confront the gunman while directing other workers, including those who are identified via their Wi-Fi-enabled locations, to either evacuate the building or stay put (shelter-in-place) depending upon their position relative to the shooter. This can be done through SMS, voice, mobile apps, digital signage or desktop alerts. What’s more, two-way communications provided in this instance are helpful for law enforcement as people in the affected areas can provide vital information – i.e. how many attackers, what do they look like, how many people are still in the building – that influences their strategy to apprehend the criminal. This real-time information is a perfect way to manage multiple groups of people to the safest possible outcome.