Emergency Alerts: Balancing Community Safety in Crisis Situations

Sept. 7, 2023
Emergency alerts can be invaluable and have proven efficient at the county and local level. At state and federal levels, some challenges have been seen.

Emergency alert messages are either welcomed during times of crisis or criticized as mistakes when errors happen. While localized alerts, such as weather alerts and Amber Alerts, are recognized as helpful by most citizens, errors on a countywide or even larger scale gather attention and have the media, public, and elected officials demanding answers. Emergency alert mistakes – sending messages in error or not notifying residents and visitors of impending danger – can impact public safety when people disable the notifications on their cell phones. Yet, when the system is used as intended and following  IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) best practices, the warnings are helpful to many and work to keep the public safe.

FEMA will use the IPAWS protocol to send out a nationwide emergency test as part of the nationwide system. At approximately 2:20 p.m. on Wednesday, October 4, 2023, a nationwide test will be sent out using the three systems under IPAWS. The three platforms include the Emergency Alert System (EAS), Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) for weather radio.  The national test will use the EAS to send the alert to radios and televisions and use the WEA to alert consumer cell phones.

Notifying the Public

In July, Summit County used the IPAWS WEA system to send a countywide alert to cell phones. The message indicated it was not a test and urged those receiving it to stay inside and turn off heating and cooling systems until further notice. Ten minutes after the first alert, a second alert was sent, clarifying the first alert to specify the location and indicate it was a police situation. The initial alert was warranted, but the information included in the first alert was inaccurate. Afterward, the County determined a predesigned template for environmental hazards was used by staff to send the first alert.

In recent flooding due to Hurricane Hilary, officials in San Bernadino County had difficulty using the FEMA system, so they used a commercial software provider to send emergency messages to evacuate. The commercial system notified only a portion of residents with landlines and the few that had registered their cell phone numbers through the County and the software. And in April, a test message was sent to millions of cell phones in Florida during the early morning hours. The message was a monthly test to be sent only to television broadcasts through the EAS, but instead, it jarred many awake with the cell phone emergency alert sent through the WEA.

Staff Training and Policy Updates

With most emergency alerts sent in error, reviews of the incidents lead to increased training and regular practice tests. Times of crisis and disaster are when we need to rely on training. Regular staff training through issuing practice test alerts using the IPAWS best practices can help staff prepare for emergencies. Periodic reviews of the emergency alert protocols by each agency also help update policies and ensure training goals are being met. Those decision-makers should also know when and how that protocol changes with interagency situations, such as wildfires, hazmat, or multi-jurisdictional police situations.

The policy and procedures of when an agency sends an emergency alert should also be reviewed during annual policy reviews. Including other agency stakeholders in the review, such as agency leadership and elected officials, can ensure the notification process meets community standards. Providing annual public information through social media, community newsletters, or a similar method can help keep the public aware of the process and ensure they know the importance of enabling alerts on their cell phone.

Using Technology

Recently, newer Apple phones could try other networks and then use satellite communication to connect emergency calls to 911 if cellular networks were down. While not available in all countries and regions, the ability to use satellite communications on cellular phones is supported by the 5G network. And through the 5G network, the reverse would be possible–sending emergency notifications through satellites and back to cellular phones with 5G.

Software, hardware, and other technologies continue to improve and change how we can notify community residents and visitors of emergencies. Law enforcement should know what their agency has in place for notifying the community of emergencies. Knowing the protocols for public emergency alerts and who in the chain of command can approve the messages is also critical for saving time in emergencies. As the public becomes even more reliant on cell phones, emergency alerts are one of the tools law enforcement can use to inform and give safety instructions. Recent examples show that knowing when and how to send emergency alerts is vital during crisis situations. And it’s better to plan and train for emergency response during non-emergency times. 

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