An emergency notification system that is deployed with a primary mission of providing notifications to the public has significantly more considerations in system selection than a system geared toward internal notifications. There are several reasons for this but the single most significant is that we must consider two types of messages that will be delivered – those for routine emergencies as well as those for critical events that require immediate action to protect life and property.
Routine Emergency Notifications
We can think of routine emergencies as those that occur daily or weekly that we would like to make the public aware of. This may include a major road closure, significant weather event, boil water notice, or even a notification that siren systems will be tested. For these systems we must determine what the most effective method both by penetration and cost to disseminate our message will be. Similar to an internal notification system, we will want to consider the following notification mediums as primary distribution channels:
- SMS (Text Message)
Most notification systems that are available in the mainstream market provide these distribution channels and the public has generally come to expect that level of availability within an opt-in system. In addition to this basic feature set, I highly recommend that organizations also consider a system capable of delivering messages via fax. Many businesses and new media desks may be very interested in receiving notifications from your organization however it is quite likely that the most efficient method to reach them may be by a traditional fax machine. Your notification system should also be capable of publishing your messages to your organization’s website as well as to social media accounts such as Twitter and Facebook. These additional distribution channels can substantively increase both the reach and relevance of your message.
Critical Event Notifications
Notifying the public of a critical event that requires them to take immediate protective action calls for activation of the Emergency Alert System (EAS). Because of this you will want to ensure that any system utilized for delivering these messages is capable of triggering EAS. Unfortunately, very few notification systems provide for the direct – end to end – connection to broadcasters.
Although I generally attempt to avoid direct vendor mentions, one vendor that does provide such a system, including the interconnecting infrastructure, is Communications Laboratories’ EMnet system. This package places equipment at each activation point as well as each broadcaster and connectivity is achieved using internet as well as satellite links between each point. It is important to note however that while this system does an excellent job at activating EAS, it does not provide for the other distribution channels that we have addressed above.
The advent of the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) does however offer a mechanism and infrastructure for many notification systems to trigger an EAS activation. Utilizing the internet, a notification system can push a message formated in the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) to federally maintained servers that will then redistribute the message to broadcasters and select other partners. The IPAWS program is still under development at this point however a timeline has been established by the FCC to require broadcasters to obtain equipment capable of receiving messages from the IPAWS server.
Depending on the size of the jurisdiction, some thought should be given to ensuring that your system allows you to target alerts to specific geographic areas potentially as small as the neighborhood level. You will also almost certainly want to design the system to allow your citizens to opt-in to receiving specific types of information. A resident may wish to receive notifications about severe weather and school closings but not about road conditions. Designing your system in this manner helps ensure that your content will be relevant to those receiving it.
A Holistic Approach
Since very few vendors offer a single product that does everything well, a comprehensive public warning program may require the use of multiple products potentially from multiple vendors. For example, desiring a very robust and redundant EAS program, a jurisdiction may select a product such as EMnet that performs that function very well and also procure a product that specializes in delivering notification by email, SMS, and other electronic means. They may utilize the output of one of these systems to update their website and publish their message to social media. Such an operational concept can be achieved, through effective system integration, in a single operation performed by the user and will be the topic of our final post in this series.