A summer hiatus
I had a tumultuous year, so I took a summer hiatus and moved from Chicago to an Indiana beachside town. To soak up the full experience of the lake and evening sunsets, I didn’t order cable television or even bother with bunny-ear antennas in order to get local TV channels. I turned off the radio, and in my car I listened to jazz CD rather than news. But then it dawned on me: Maybe this wasn’t a safe move. I mean, how would I be notified of a man-made or natural disaster if I all but checked out of the media-centric, modern world?
Besides audible alarms, the only way I could receive notification is through emergency alerts via text message. Sending text messages to inform the masses gained traction on university campuses throughout the U.S. where students and faculty alike now use the technology to broadcast information, from an extreme weather event to a gunman on campus. But like all technological systems, it’s only as good as its users—who may or may not realize how to opt into notification systems administered by local governments.
This disconnect was discussed at this week’s Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials conference by Houston Thomas, CDW Government’s public safety business development manager. The company recently conducted a study in which it surveyed citizens in the Top 20 metropolitan areas about their knowledge of their local municipalities’ emergency alert systems.
A total of 1448 people responded to the survey, with a minimum of 50 respondents from each major metropolitan area represented. The survey was administered to decipher how cities communicate emergency information to citizens; determine where residents turn for up-to-the-minute emergency information; evaluate local emergency alert systems; and learn what type of information residents want from local emergency alert systems.
In general, most city, state and local governments primarily rely on television and radio to communicate emergency information to the public, Thomas said. According to the survey,75% of respondents depended on TV to receive notifications, versus 5% who depended on text messages.
At the same time, respondents overwhelmingly stated that governments were doing a poor job of informing citizens of major disasters over any emergency alert system and were unsure if their city has a modern emergency alert notification system in place. I write about technology, yet I also fall into the 75% who don’t know whether their city has an emergency alert system. I never receive detailed information from city officials, have never seen a public service announcement and have no idea how I would sign up to receive an emergency notification via text message if a major disaster happened.
In fact, just two days ago strong storms bearing tornado-level winds swept through Chicago, resulting in Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, being evacuated mid-game. Those present didn’t receive text notification. Instead, emergency sirens could be heard throughout the city warning citizens of the danger while it happened—not before.
Thomas suggests that cities implement a multi-modal communications suite that includes mass notification systems. Such systems should offer multiple notification avenues, such as text messaging. He warned though that messages should be sent to select groups of recipients based on the location, scope and severity of an incident in order to avoid what he called “a desensitization of the public” to alerts.
Most important, the citizenry has to be informed about how to opt into alerts. Thomas suggested public service announcements, vendor participation, and even posting information about signing up on the sides of emergency vehicles.
But why does the citizenry need to opt in? Most are worried about privacy issues, but a simple Google search using a cell phone number often unearths personal information, as several companies offer reverse-look-up features. So the argument falls short.
Me, I could care less. I don’t need to opt in. Sign me up. If my government wants to communicate with me, I welcome it—especially if it is a life or death situation. Make it simple for me by placing the responsibility with the cellular carrier, who can let customers know they are automatically registered for alerts based on their geographic locations. Put together public service announcements about it. Do something. Because I want to know if my life or the lives of those around me are in danger—sooner rather than later.
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