Why not choose more than one method for public alerting?

Blog: Espen Gylvik, CEO of UMS

Hard Taco or Soft Taco… Why not both?

Espen Gylvik, Chief Executive Officer of UMS

An old advertisement pitting hard tacos versus soft tacos sees a simple solution offered by a little girl. “Why not have the best of both worlds?” ponders the girl, for which she is instantly hailed as a hero who solved the age-old argument, once and for all. While not all problems have such a simple solution, there are quite a few issues in the world that can benefit from this approach.

A classic example of this can be seen in the field of public alerting, where debates around “this vs. that” have resulted in unresolved problems to this day. Proponents of various technologies have proclaimed to have found the definitive answer to a problem, only to be proven wrong.

The world today faces more threats with every passing year – both natural disasters as well as acts of terror and accidents continue to grow and spread across the globe. At the same time, the awareness levels of people about events and calamities – in many cases retrospective – is also increasing everywhere. This has necessitated action from governing bodies – be it municipalities, districts or countries and public warning and disaster resilience are finding their place in every country’s portfolio.

Better technologies

The demand for better technologies to inform citizens during incidents has in-turn catalysed advancements in technologies. The advent of mobile communication has significantly improved the chances of reaching people during emergencies. Two technologies that have emerged over the past few years have the clear advantage over others simply because of their simplicity and efficiency. These are Cell Broadcast (CB) and Location Based SMS (LB-SMS).

Cell Broadcast

Cell Broadcast is one of the obvious choices for emergency alerts, seeing that it was included in the GSM standard specifically for this purpose. Because CB is directed to all radio cells in a limited area – as opposed to each individual phone – message delivery is extremely efficient and with less strain on the radio network.

The major drawback is that CB must to be actively configured on the phone in order to receive messages. It requires the end-user to do something, which, as it turns out, is less likely to happen. In a European country, where CB has been selected as a standard for public alerting not even half the phones are currently enabled for CB, despite massive campaigns to convince the public to do so. What adds to the issue is that not all existing phones have the capability to receive CB in the first place. This further reduces the effectiveness of CB in an emergency scenario.

Furthermore, there are no delivery reports or statistics around the number of recipients. And broadcasting means you cannot easily reply to messages. Experience from major disasters, such as the Haiti earthquake, has taught us that feedback from the public is fundamental. With CB you are shouting, but not listening.

Location Based SMS

LB-SMS, on the other hand, addresses all the limitations stated above for CB.
SMSs do not require configuration by end users and provide a simple and familiar mechanism for recipients to respond back with critical information. With SMS, delivery status is available which in turn gives the authorities a clear picture about how many people have actually received the information, helping them plan the next course of action more effectively.

While it may come second to CB in terms of speed of delivery, LB-SMS provides significant improvements over CB that cannot be ignored.
At the same time, CB’s speed and reach can come in handy when a very large number of people need to be alerted in a very short span of time.

For years, governments across the world have weighed upon this choice, with many leaning towards one technology or the other. The growing number of incidents have shown that CB may not be as reliable and LB-SMS might not be able to match CB’s speed. So perhaps it might be beneficial for everyone involved, to take the little girl’s advice!

A system that can combine the benefits of both technologies while effectively negating their liabilities was deemed ideal. At UMS, we have managed to strengthen and adapt our flagship product UMS Alert to work effectively using both technologies. This, combined with our Hybrid-Location Based Alerting System can bring together CB and LB-SMS under one roof, providing authorities the option to use them both, based on situational needs.

A hurricane or cyclone that can be predicted days in advance can see the usage of LB-SMS to safely evacuate all citizens from the line of threat, whereas a CB alert can be more effective to deal with an earthquake that gives very little time to alert significantly large number of people.

UMS brings the best of two worlds together

At UMS, we do what the little girl from the old advertisement says; we bring the best of the two worlds together. We use the two technologies, that were considered to be polar opposites, together to function with greater effectiveness and accuracy than they could achieve single-handedly. A balanced approach of this nature can potentially reduce disaster risks by a greater margin than what we see today.

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