Emergency Alert Systems Both Then and Now

The Government’s Take on Alerts

I was surprised to learn that the federal Emergency Alert System (EAS) was only used at the local level until November 9, 2011 at 2 pm eastern. This date marked the first time FEMA ever tested the EAS nationwide. All of the television and radio test sirens you have ever heard were initiated by your local authorities.

The EAS was actually put in place in 1997 to replace the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS). Both were designed to give the President clear, uninterrupted access to thousands of television stations and broadcast radio stations across the U.S. and U.S. territories in the event of a national emergency. In essence, it ensures the President can address the nation quickly with real-time information. According to FEMA, “The EAS test plays a key role in ensuring our nation is prepared for all hazards and people within its borders are able to receive critical and vital information, should it ever be needed.”

With time and technology, however, the EAS wasn’t enough. It only broadcasts critical messages across TVs and radio. The latest reports show that while traditional AM/FM radio is still alive and well, 74 percent of us get our news through smartphones and 29 percent through tablets. The EAS doesn’t extend to these relatively newer channels. Instead of scrapping the EAS, the government created a new capability, the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA).

The FCC defines the WEA as “a public safety system that allows customers who own certain wireless phones and other enabled mobile devices to receive geographically-targeted, text-like messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area. The technology ensures that emergency alerts will not get stuck in highly congested areas, which can happen with standard mobile voice and texting services.”

WEA allows government officials to segment the population based on specific geographic areas through cell towers. WEA-enabled mobile devices can receive these messages. The caveat is that wireless companies, like AT&T, must volunteer to participate in WEA. The actual alert is sent through FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) to participating wireless carriers who then push the alerts from their cell towers to mobile devices in the area. Only the phones that are using the specific cell towers in the alert zone will receive the WEA.

Bringing the Emergency Alert System In-House

There are many correlations between the government emergency alert system and its challenges, and those of private sector companies. The big question they both share is how to reach the intended audience the best way. Just as the government used to rely solely on television and radio to transmit important messages, companies often depend on phone and email to deliver critical notifications. While this was sufficient in the past, today’s workers are mobile and reliant on smartphones.

For some of the same reasons why the WEA system was implemented, companies must find alternate channels that do not have the risk of messages getting “stuck” in highly congested areas. When we’re talking about email and phone, these roadblocks are inboxes and voicemail. The truth is, we don’t read all of our emails. The best ones only have a 21 percent open rate and the rest end up in the deleted or junk folder, or spend eternity buried in an inbox. There’s simply no guarantee the email message will ever be seen, let alone read.

Phones don’t have it so well, either. While landlines seem downright archaic (just over half of U.S. adults live in a home with a landline), even smartphones aren’t used primarily for making and receiving phone calls. Only about 50 percent of adults say they will pick up a call during a social event. These numbers don’t give emergency messages much of a chance. What are smartphones most used for? Text messaging.

Many organizations have already transitioned to a mass text alert system. The smartest organizations invest in a system that will enable them to send messages across multiple channels simultaneously. Being able to segment the employee population is a key requirement. Just as the WEA gives the government the ability to target their emergency messages to those within range of specific cell towers, a mass text system should be able to decipher messages based on employee location.

Why is this important?  Because studies show employees are not at their desks 50-60 percent of the time. They are telecommuting, traveling locally, nationwide, or internationally. Even those who are physically in a corporate office are often dispersed across many locations and facilities. This highly dispersed workforce means employees can be virtually anywhere at any time. A weather warning for one employee may not be relevant to another, based on their geographic location. A chemical spill in one manufacturing facility won’t impact an employee in a downtown highrise.

The best alert systems will include multi-modal functionality, instant and real-time communications, and customizable delivery options. These features coincide nicely with what the government recognizes as important capabilities in their emergency preparedness strategy.

Giving Employees A Voice

One aspect the government has yet to recognize, however, is the value of two-way communication. The EAS and WEA are one-way alerts. They are meant to send out emergency notifications, warnings, and alerts. They do not enable recipients to respond. This may not seem like a notable thing until you realize how effective two-way communication can be during an emergency.

Before an emergency, as in a weather-related event where there is some prior warning, notifying employees of the impending danger is important. Those organizations who operate out of coastal cities or Tornado Alley are keenly aware of this. Sending an alert to employees is one thing; allowing them to ask questions or offer additional information is another. Corporate alerts may come from administrators in a completely different location while those in harm’s way may be able to provide helpful evacuation or shelter details.

While responding to a mass text alert may not be possible or even desired, providing employees with links to more resources is ideal. Some organizations set up message boards via social media and/or intranet sites where employees can share information, photos, and videos. This level of detail is valuable not only before a crisis but during and after such event. Here’s how this played out in a real-world situation:

In 2010, a massive earthquake hit Haiti that destroyed its capital, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and virtually wiped out communications. Relief poured in from countries all over the world, making it one of the largest humanitarian efforts in history. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) joined forces with the Haiti Red Cross Society. They created a two-way dialogue between employees and volunteers to help transfer knowledge about what was happening on the ground so they could determine exactly what was needed to bring the most relief. This ensured those affected quickly received the help they needed as well as reduced costs by not sending items of no value.

This is but one example of how volunteer organizations were able to mobilize and communicate with each other and victims to ensure the fastest and best support. It highlights the benefits of enabling those at ground level to provide eyewitness accounts to business leaders, first responders, and emergency personnel. It is often the most powerful intel available.

Companies can embrace this two-way, multi-modal technology to keep employees safe no matter their location and keep communication flowing so no one is left stranded. Employees become part of the solution and make a real difference in how an emergency event unfolds.