Emergency alert systems aren’t the panacea
Cell phones have become the lifeblood of virtually every citizen in America. People gab on them all day long, carry them around for emergencies, and stay connected on them via e-mail and the mobile Web. Market consultant firm iGR found that 42% of cell phone users it polled said they make calls and send text messages while in the bathroom.
So as cell phones are becoming more and more prolific, are we being lulled into a false sense of security?
I’m particularly concerned about emergency text alert systems that a number of municipalities and major universities have deployed to alert people to impending danger. Municipalities are deploying such systems to warn people of tornadoes, missing children and other emergencies. Universities have stepped up notification efforts in response to the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, where a lone gunman killed 32 people, among other incidents.
These services typically rely on third parties that connect to mobile operator networks to transmit emergency messages via text, along with e-mail and voice, to end users who have opted into the service. Early on, a host of fly-by-night companies jumped into the business following the Virginia Tech incident, but slowly companies are being weeded out, leaving those that have real agreements with operators and not just those that transmit messages over e-mail and hope mobile operators deliver them all. The former systems, for the most part, are doing a better job of notifying recipients.
But what if a message fails to reach the recipients just once? In Fort Collins, Colo., last month, emergency dispatchers tried to trigger the new alert system deployed by the county there to warn residents of a possible tornado. The system had been used by the agency more than a dozen times for emergencies, but this time was unable to get information out to the more than 100,000 phone numbers and e-mail addresses, according to the Denver Post. The system just wouldn’t make the calls. Thankfully, no tornadoes touched down.
At Virginia Tech last fall, the university’s first-time use of its emergency notification system failed. It was trying to notify students of gunshots, which, thankfully, turned out to be a nail gun shot at trash cans. I can imagine the panic there among university officials.
The point is, while all of these types of systems are quite beneficial, they shouldn’t be viewed as a panacea, especially when mobile operators continue to warn that they can’t reliably deliver emergency text messages until they have a broadcast system in place, which won’t occur until sometime in 2010 or beyond. E-mail messages aren’t guaranteed to be delivered reliably either.
Ergo, municipalities can’t substitute these systems for sirens. Universities can’t use them as their primary emergency response plan. And end users shouldn’t think of these services as failsafe, despite the fact that the cell phone is such a deeply embedded part of their lives.
Moreover, there is still a significant amount of human error associated with these systems that must be contemplated. Once you have the ability to send emergency messages, what do you say? Do you understate over overstate the emergency? And what if you send out too many messages? Will end users start ignoring them?
It would be a real tragedy if these systems, ironically, were to blame for the loss of life.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.