Observations on the Role of Mass Notification Systems During Critical Events - Voyent Alert!

Observations on the Role of Mass Notification Systems During Critical Events

Heat waves, a hyper-active fire season and now, unprecedented flood events have put the spotlight on emergency mass notification system solutions and their role in helping communities preparing for and respond to these increasingly frequent events.

As President and CEO one of Canada’s leading community engagement and mass notification services, I have had the opportunity to observe first-hand the interaction between provincial/federal alerting solutions and commercial alerting solutions.  While both offer unique capabilities critical to effective emergency management operations, they can, by themselves, fall short of what is needed during times of crisis. Community interests are best served when federal and provincial alerting tools are augmented with localized alerting solutions from commercial vendors.

Alerting Reach

While critical alerts issued by local governments over commercial systems are highly effective at engaging the public, there is no denying that the gravitas and the attention garnered by a provincial or federal level alert is significantly higher. The ability of government agencies to secure the airwaves and broadcast advisories to resident’s cell phones, televisions and radios – whether they are subscribed to an alerting service or not –  is an incredibly valuable tool, and significantly expands the reach and scope of emergency communications.

BUT as effective as a federal/provincial system might be at getting the word out, it doesn’t reach everybody.

At the current time, federal/provincial alerting systems are not capable of alerting via email or land-line phones,  which are the channels typically relied upon by the most at-risk members of community during a critical event.  Conversely, almost all localized or regional solutions from commercial suppliers provide mechanisms to enroll and communicate through land-line and email channels, extending coverage beyond that of provincial and federal systems.

Messaging Content and Relevance

The mandate of federal/provincial alerting solutions is to deliver an alert as broadly and as quickly as possible.  Given its scope, the information being delivered is often generic in nature as it applies to the incident.  In extreme cases, information received may not be relevant at all to the recipient.  I am sure we have all experienced receiving an alert and wondering “why did I get this?”. This latter case becomes increasingly problematic, as any perceived lack of relevance in one particular event can de-sensitize users to the service for future events.

In recent years, commercial mass notification solutions have undergone considerable advancements in terms of capabilities and features.  The most modern solutions have the ability to deliver highly targeted messaging with enriched and personalized content that provides users with greater insight and context to the events unfolding around them. 

Critical information such as distance and direction to incident sites, personalized evacuation instructions, and local information such as locations and directions to shelter centres provide much more relevant context to community members. 

These kinds of solutions drive a higher level of engagement and provide emergency management personnel with a broader range of tools to monitor real-time community response and follow through on previous instructions.

Alert Scope and Issuance

Federal and Provincial alerting systems are incredibly effective at getting the word out.  But given the nature of their delivery they can also be viewed as intrusive.  Usage scope is often restricted to “threat to life” or major level events, and their issuance is often restricted to the onset of an event when the alert can be most impactful in terms of preserving life and property. For these reasons, federal and provincial systems are not the most ideal vehicle for providing situational or information updates or for use during post-event recovery phases.

Having been witness to a wide variety of local and regional emergencies over the past several years, one thing has become clear.  Mitigation of risk, community impact, event cost and resource drain has been best achieved by those communities who prepare for and respond to critical events within the context of a broader lifecycle, something commercial solutions are well suited for.

Event Lifecycle Approach

Risk mitigation starts with community preparedness.  When used alongside other outreach efforts such as social media, website deployment and events, mass notification and engagement tools can be effective solutions to help build awareness across communities in terms of important resources, what actions to take and how to prepare in advance of a critical event.

At the onset of major events, local mass notification solutions can augment the outreach of provincial and federal alerting services by reaching community members that other systems can’t and providing targeted information relevant to local communities.

Communication requirements don’t stop once an evacuation order has been delivered. Community members displaced by an event are under extraordinary pressures and stress. Lack of communication and information during this time only adds to anxiety levels across a community.  We frequently see spikes in inbound queries from community members looking for updates. Dealing with these queries places increased support load on front line staff and can often take up valuable resources and time from emergency management personnel.  Communities that pro-actively utilize their mass communications infrastructure to provide regular updates during an event significantly reduce their support load and response costs.

Once the direct threat of an event has passed, the recovery phase can begin.  Successful recovery efforts are often characterized by high levels of community engagement and communication through a myriad of channels, including commercial alerting tools capable of delivering communications targeted by geolocation or interest groups.

Summary

Emergency management professionals must be able to leverage a wide range of communication tools at their disposal in order to effectively prepare, respond and recover from critical events.  As we have seen, there is no one size fits all approach.  When used collaboratively, commercial and provincial / federal mass communication solutions can complement each others capabilities and strengths and deliver a powerful and essential capability to an emergency managers arsenal of tools.

-Brian McKinney
President & CEO at ICEsoft Technologies

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