Emergency alerting

– how to efficiently reach the masses?

By: Espen Gylvik, CEO UMS

Another summer is almost over. Traditionally known for its lack of any real news stories, this summer has seen an image of a nervous Europe, fearing attacks of a more or less organised form, come into prominence. It puts renewed focus on how governments in Europe and the world in general can best protect and inform citizens in relation to terrorism and unexpected incidents.

During the European Football Championship, interest in sports itself was great but the things that shouldn’t happen received a lot of attention during the tournament as well. Norwegian media wrote about how France prior to UEFA EURO 2016 had launched an app that would alert people about terrorist attacks and other possible hazards. “The new app” was launched by the French Interior Ministry. For the general public, the solution was presented as something new and revolutionary. But these kinds of applications and far more sophisticated notification solutions have been available for some time. Now, the time has come to take advantage of the opportunities created by new technology.

Good notification procedures are essential for well-functioning emergency preparedness and crisis management. To us who work with early warning systems and innovation, it is welcoming news that interest in alerting systems designed to warn people located within a defined area is starting to gain traction. Because we sincerely believe it could help save lives, we hope it leads to increased curiosity and interest in systems that provide unique opportunities to share critical information quickly and accurately.

The fear that terrorists will take any opportunity to carry out new attacks is on the top of minds to both authorities and to the public. Unfortunately, acts of terrorism, natural disasters and other unwelcome incidents are possibly at their most cruel when occurring suddenly without warning and at an unimaginable location; something which we have all too painfully experienced here in Norway.

 

Efficient alerting in emergencies

Warning systems can neither prevent nor reduce the risk of terrorism, natural disasters or unexpected incidents. Nonetheless, an efficient and capable warning system can help to save lives and reduce damage to people and property. Therefore, good alerting routines – defining whom, how and through which channels – is a prerequisite for sound emergency preparedness, whether it is at a national level or for the implementation at a local festival. New technology makes it possible to notify effectively via the most accurate channel we have today – mobile phones.

The mobile phone as a notification and information channel
In Norway we have an extremely high mobile penetration which make mobile phones a highly interesting tool in terms of crisis management and emergency preparedness. What is proper alerting really all about? The way we see it, it’s about being able to answer these questions well:

  1. How many are being notified (preferably measured as a percentage share of those you need to reach)
  2. How fast are they notified?
  3. Will the alert be perceived as important and taken seriously?
  4. Can the recipients answer back?
  5. Do we know that the alert or information was delivered and to how many?
  6. Can the notification be limited to a geographic area and thus avoid warning those who are not affected?

 

Channels such as sirens and apps offer immediate alerting capabilities. For an app to reach people it needs to be downloaded to the phone and if the network is congested the app is unable to deliver the messages to those who have downloaded it. Expecting everyone who attends an event to download an app is utopian thinking – not to mention an entire population. A campaign to promote the app to such an extent that a large proportion of the population actually downloads it would cost millions.SMS Alerting

Therefore, we say that the easiest solution is often the best solution. Text messaging is supported in all mobile phones and it is easy to detect if the messages has or has not been sent. Furthermore, text messages can be sent to people who are within a specific area without requiring them to take any kind of action. The limitations in the mobile network are getting less and less significant. Combined with sirens that make people aware that “something is happening” we dare to say that most people are more likely to check their mobile phones for information than to run home and listen to the radio or turn on the TV. What limits SMS is that it only contains text and has a max limit on characters, however, SMS can link people directly to other digital platforms for more information.

By adopting SMS alerts, in combination with sirens, we will easily be able to reach people when the need for information is at its greatest.

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