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SMS/MMS text messaging can help local governments and public-safety agencies connect to the public

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Communicating with residents is a priority for state and local governments and public-safety agencies at any time, but it is especially important during times of emergency. SMS/MMS messaging systems can help provide alerts during such critical moments, as well as improve information exchanges with the public on a day-to-day basis. 

By Cliff Holsenbeck

According to Pew Research, nine-in-ten American adults (92%) own a mobile phone of some kind. That reach is undisputed and why more and more industries are working to develop consumer mobile engagement strategies. This includes public-safety and local government agencies. 

Currently, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) are the official government communication vehicle for distributing urgent public-safety messages via the mobile channel, but is it possible these agencies could take mobile communication a step further by exploring the use of additional tools?

For instance, according to research conducted by Pew Research on smartphone usage, one of the most overlooked mobile features—yet most frequently used by consumers—is SMS/MMS text messaging. If utilized properly, this can provide a direct and ongoing line of engagement to local residents, which can become extremely important when trying to notify citizens of a major public-safety incident. However, in order to do that, access and approval to message with local mobile numbers is needed. One way some agencies have been accomplishing this is through the use of common short codes. These five- to six-digit codes let mobile users opt-in to receiving text-message notifications from a particular agency. They are universally accessible on most networks and mobile devices.

Most agencies—especially local governments in cities such as Anaheim and Seattle—already have messaging alert systems that local residents have the option to join. Right now, that is possible only via a website, which can limit residents’ awareness of and engagement with these programs. In today’s mobile first world, local governments can employ common short codes to increase engagement and get more residents connected and informed. This lets residents easily opt-in to alerts and announcements, and government agencies can promote them via advertisements, brochures and other collateral.

Another advantage of utilizing SMS/MMS is that it is targeted to a mobile subscriber’s opt-in phone number, which may or may not physically be located in the geographic area where a person is currently located.  For example, subscribers could sign up for weather alerts in the town where they have a vacation home or where family members live, to monitor their safety. WEA alerts only target an area where the subscriber is currently physically located and where the phone is turned on and is receiving a signal.

How can local public-safety and government agencies use common shorts codes to augment their current WEA efforts? 

1. Timely information on weather or other conditions: Weather conditions can escalate quickly, putting safety at risk. Hot and dry summers can lead to brush fires; tornadoes or hurricanes can hit at any time; winter can bring frigid icy temperatures and heavy snow, and that snow and heavy rain eventually can lead to flooding. By opting into a messaging service—either with participating public-safety agencies (fire department or police) or the local city government—residents could receive timely information about these conditions, including what areas might be impacted most by unsafe conditions, who should be contacted for more detailed information, safety reminders, etc.

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

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