Emergency Alerts and Communications

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You’ve heard that jarring emergency alert sound, coming on the TV or on your cell phone, right? Something like BRRRRRRRKKKKKKK. BRRRRRRRKKKKKKK. Usually, the message that follows is: “This is a test.” Or it could be an AMBER alert about a kidnapped child.

Ever stop to think about where these emergency alerts are actually coming from? These days there could be several sources. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Emergency Alerts at the federal level

We’ll start with a simplified description of the federal system. If you want more detail, head to the Federal Communications Commission site. From there, you can go deeper and ever deeper into the subject.

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) was first set up in 1997.

Its purpose was to allow the President to speak to the American public during a national emergency.  The program is run jointly by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). Some 77 radio stations across the country, equipped with special back-up capability, send out EAS messages. EAS messages can also go out over TV, cable TV, wireless cable, satellite and video.

In 2012 a second level of emergency messaging went live.

The Wireless Emergency Alert system (WEA) can send messages to specific locations (“geo-targeting”) and devices using – you got it – wireless technology. If your cellphone is WEA enabled, you may get an emergency alert – but the person standing next to you, whose phone is NOT enabled, may not receive it!

Action item: Find out if your cellphone is WEA-capable. Not all wireless service providers offer WEA on all their devices. https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/wireless-emergency-alerts-wea

And be sure that in addition to your cellphone you have at least one (preferably more) working emergency radios! For a thorough discussion of the different kinds and the features they offer, please take a look at Emergency Plan Guide’s own Emergency Radio Reviews. (You’ll see photos of some of the radios we own!)

OK, those are basics for widespread, official alert messages. If you hear one, you’ll probably pay attention. Fortunately, they don’t come too often.

Emergency Communications at the local level

A second source of emergency alerts is likely to be your town or city. Every day, for example, communities experience fires, security breaches, power outages, accidents, and severe weather. These localized emergencies may impact many people – residents, transportation services, health care facilities, businesses, etc. 

Cities, towns and counties are required to have emergency management organizations and to develop emergency management plans for the continuity of the government and the safety of residents. And many cities set up programs to help their citizens be more prepared in emergencies – programs like CERT.

Examples of some local emergency alert systems

So how do cities let people know that there’s a local emergency? It all depends . . . For example, here are some of the city/county systems I came across in preparing this article:

  • Santa Clara County (CA) sends text messages to residents via AlertSCC.
  • San Francisco has AlertSF as well as a public loudspeaker system.
  • The City of Pittsfield (MA) has installed CodeRED that can send out phone, text and email messages to thousands of its residents, in minutes.

Here in our city we have a similar, county-wide alert system. One of the challenges – unlike EAS or WEA, which go out automatically — people have to actively sign up to get on the local alert lists in order to be notified! (Sadly, since our system is relatively new, only a small percentage of people have gotten around to signing up.)

Action Item: Find out if your city or county has an emergency alert system. How comprehensive is it? (phone, email, computer, etc.) Do you have to sign up to get the emergency messages?

Emergency Communications where you work

A third source of emergency alerts could be your work. It it experiences an explosion, a power outage, a crash, data breach, an active shooter incident, etc., how will employees find out what’s happening? How will they know what to do? What about families, customers, neighboring businesses, and the media?

Not having a plan for managing crisis communications is a recipe for disaster. (At the very least, legal disaster! The most likely charge if someone is damaged?  Negligence.)

What to look for in a business crisis communications system

So what should your crisis communications plan include? Start with this basic list to see what you might need:

  1. Your messages need to get out without delay – even if the disaster happens at night or on the weekend. This means having a number of pre-written messages “on the shelf” that crisis team members can readily access. In particular, any messages that might reach the media should be crafted in advance.
  2. Messages need to be able to reach everyone, one way or another because one way may not work! This means email, phone, and text at a minimum. Messages need to be short and simple (no acronyms) and, if necessary, in more than one language.
  3. People need to be able to respond – that they are safe, that they have evacuated, that someone is injured at a given location, etc.
  4. Can you target your messages to just one location, one level of management, etc.? Just as you want to reach everyone who is in the danger zone, you don’t want to necessarily upset people miles away.
  5. Can you make the system work at the critical time? Is it easy to learn and easy to operate? (Many companies use their crisis communications systems for more everyday purposes, just to be sure more people know how it functions.)

Action item: So how well does your current business emergency communications system stack up?

If you think some improvements might be in order, follow up with these two resources.

  • Capterra reviews all kinds of business software. Here is a link to their 2019 list of emergency notification software programs. Fifty-one different programs/services are reviewed!  (One of the services on this list is used by my own community association. One-way messages only, to my home phone.) You’ll get a good idea of what’s available by reviewing even a few.  https://www.capterra.com/emergency-notification-software/
  • I went further and took a free, half-hour personal “guided tour” of one of the systems Preparis. The system was recently purchased by Agility Recovery, a company I’ve admired for years. If you are truly in the market for emergency communications system, I recommend you contact Jaden Ahrens and ask her to set up a time for a demonstration with Robert Solis. Watching how the system works, and being able to ask Rob your questions, will give you a much better understanding of just how it might work for you and your company.

    Be sure to tell Jaden I sent you!  (Full disclosure: I have no affiliation with this company.)  

Jaden Ahrens, Business Development Representative
Jaden.Ahrens@agilityrecovery.com
direct: 720-490-4533

I encourage you to give your company the tools it needs to protect employees, property and reputation by having a stronger emergency communications plan.

Virginia
Your Emergency Plan Guide team

P.S. You know that sound that you hear as part of an AMBER alert? It’s called a “header burst” and is followed by an “attention tone.” These sounds were selected because they are so jarring and unpleasant! Oh, and by the way, advertisers or entertainers or anyone who misuses the tone can be sanctioned and fined.  (I read about one fine of $1 million!)


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