1 year ago



Mass Notification/Disaster Response What the FCC revamping of the Federal Alert System means to you By Nelson Daza In the wake of the New York City and New Jersey bombings that took place recently, big changes are on the way for the FCC’s Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system. Sen. Chuck Schumer expressed dissatisfaction and frustration with the current system after the WEA was used to send a brief 90-character message to cellphone users in NYC alerting them to look out for a suspect by the name of Ahmad Khan Rahami. The message had no links, photos or embedded media which caused many citizens to panic. While clearly not the intention of the FCC, their mass communications technology caused more panic than it alleviated and the organization is looking to make upgrades to ensure this type of situation doesn’t happen again. Since the EAS system is vital to our national security and public safety, it should undoubtedly be a state-of-the-art system. There are some EAS devices and protocols 26 that seem to be out of place in our modern era. For example, broadcasters have to purchase and maintain on-premise hardware that has very limited functionality and is very complex to use. Television broadcasters can still only broadcast text information in the form of a ticker tape across the top or bottom of a television set. However, more and more incident information contains richer content, such as images or video, that are not handled by the devices that are currently used. The federal government – and subsequently, all broadcasters – need to start taking steps that will allow them to stop depending on these outdated devices and start using the Internet to deliver emergency messages to television and radio. Not to mention, there are fewer and fewer people left who know how to configure, maintain or use these antiquated appliances. The ripples of the EAS upgrade will soon be felt at a municipality near you. There’s no denying that we live in a dangerous world today. Active shooter situations and extreme weather conditions seem to be happening with increasing frequency, so mass communications have never been more important. During a crisis, the ability to quickly direct large groups of people can be the difference between life and death. To do that effectively, however, there are key capabilities government officials must have in place prior to a major event. While the FCC hasn’t provided any specifics around what standards it will use for its upgrade, here are three key capabilities that should make the cut. Multi-Modal Outreach is Critical The first step in any mass communications strategy is to recruit the local population to join the program. After all, it doesn’t do anyone any good to have a cutting-edge, ultramodern communications system that can’t reach anybody. Today’s citizens have come to rely upon a wide range of Internet-connected devices, which makes it particularly difficult to lock in on one specific method of outreach. The most successful government

agencies and municipalities have asked their citizens for two key pieces of contact information: their cell phone number and their social media information. The cell phone is nearly ubiquitous among people today and it’s the only device that people carry and actively engage with throughout the day. However, it’s important to realize that no contact path, including a cellular device, is 100% reliable, 100% of the time (which is critical in an emergency situation when the message must reach as many people as possible). This is an important tenet that the FCC should consider as part of the EAS overhaul. A robust, multi-modal mass communications program enables government officials to more accurately and effectively fuel the spread of information during an emergency. Once the communication channels have been decided upon, consider supporting the program through advertising, public relations, social media and even traditional physical media to get the word out about how people can sign up for the program. The FCC should even follow the lead of local communities, such as Lewisville, Texas, where a local emergency management department conducted an extensive awareness program, which included development of marketing materials and a Public Service Announcement (PSA). The awareness program was well received and encouraged residents to enroll their other devices and contact paths. The community saw a 262% increase in resident optins in less than a year. The Power of Rich, Multimedia Messages Pictures, graphics and sound clips have permeated our everyday communications alongside plain text, and are a valuable tool in crisis communications. Just think for a moment back to the New Jersey bombing incident. If the FCC were able to issue a picture of the suspect during their communication, local citizens would be empowered to become helpful informants to locating the suspect. People in crisis situations tend to be hyper-focused on any and all stimulus so asking them to take 27 the extra step to locate an image of the suspect via a Google search is a bridge too far for many to cross. The ability to provide people with a succinct synopsis – complete with the who’s, where’s, why’s and how’s – is critical to stomping out uncertainty and panic from the get-go. A picture is worth a thousand words and can serve as a critical piece of information in criminal investigations for police officers. Real-Time Guidance During a Crisis Crisis situations are fluid and dynamic. To properly manage an emergency event, specific people need to take decisive actions throughout a prolonged period of time. This requires an immense amount of realtime coordination that is impossible unless an agency or municipality is able to communicate with targeted groups during an incident. EAS should incorporate the fundamentals of two-way communication, and targeted notification capabilities, where possible. As an example, let’s imagine an active shooter situation within a government building. Government officials could quickly communicate with security personnel to confront the gunman while directing other workers, including those More on page 51