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Public Notification: One Chance to Make a First Impression

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2018-02-28
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Danger Will Robinson! Warning! Warning!!

Any fans of the '60s sci-fi show Lost in Space will relate to the alert frequently sounded by the robot when trouble was afoot. These grave admonitions were often accompanied by the flailing about of mechanical arms and the twisting of a plexiglass head, which tended to make even the most critical situations seem farcical. In the real world, however, when it comes to the job of alerting the public of impending disaster, there is little room for levity. People want the facts and they want them fast. That’s why this year has been shaping up as an embarrassment, of sorts, for those assigned to sounding the alarm.

On January 13, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency released a message indicating that the islands were under nuclear attack. The frenzy caused was likely increased by the repeated mention of that locale as a potential target for North Korean ICBMs by the media in preceding months. As if an incorrect message about incoming nukes was not damaging enough, the time taken to correct the error, and the follow up stories as to how and why it occurred can be considered two more swinging strikes. An ever-changing saga that involved reassigning then terminating the employee allegedly responsible, charges of past performance issues, the resignation of the agency head, and a chapter about the governor not being able to post a retraction message because he didn’t know his Twitter log-in information all added to the saga.

Before we lay all the blame for such situations on the government alone, let us fast forward to February 6, when the meteorological service AccuWeather sent out a tsunami warning to much of the east coast and Caribbean. While the National Weather Service message that triggered this alert clearly said TEST, the company contends that it contained internal coding consistent with a real alert, and that its computers recognized it as such.

These two similar but conflicting tales help to paint a picture of the minefield that surrounds the process of alerting the public. In the first case, by all appearances, somebody simply screwed up. While this might tempt us to consider more computerization of the process in order to avoid the human element, the second scenario suggests that automation is not without flaw. Had a real person read the label “test”, he or she would have never sent an actual alert. Unless, of course, that person worked in Hawaii.

Looking backward we can see that these are not the first large scale issues that have happened in this arena. In the spring of 2017, the tornado sirens protecting Dallas, Texas were activated by a hacker, and research done in 2013 found that components of the Emergency Alert System used to broadcast emergency messages on TV and radio were at risk. In 2016, a hazardous materials warning aired on a Utica, New York television station when there was no actual event.

Looking into the future, we’ll likely not escape the potential for false-alarms. The double-edged sword of these conversations comes from the need to act quickly, yet responsibly, while protecting ourselves from erroneous or accidental activations. Should we opt for a dual key and sealed envelope system used in military applications, as suggested by some, or is this simply overkill? And what about situations where a 9-1-1 center receives a confirmed report of a tornado touched down and headed directly for town? Shouldn’t telecommunicators be able to take decisive action without the need for a complex approval process?

Regardless of our internal discussions concerning getting the right message out at the right time, we would be remiss without factoring in the wildcard called social media. While it is relatively simple to track and correct our own actions, it is virtually impossible to monitor every piece of information and misinformation posted by the public. There are some positive stories that came from events such as Hurricane Sandy, and Facebook features that allow people to check in as being safe during a disaster are certainly beneficial. On the other hand, examples like this one, published here in 2016 (“Social Media, Misinformation, and Tsunami Disaster Management”) help to make us aware of the downside of the spread of unverified information. Can computer routines be utilized to accurately scan posts across all popular platforms for key words during emergencies, or are we destined to forever commit significant personnel resources to actively monitoring the online community? One only has to see the amount of incorrect “advice” concerning 9-1-1 that crosses our laptops on a daily basis to see the potential for chaos. Testimonials on calling 1-1-2, cell phones that ping the local police, and Automatic Teller Machines that elicit law enforcement response when you reverse your Personal Identification Number pale in comparison to the stories that can be manufactured when a crisis is at hand.

As technologies such as IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) further develop, and eventually even more capacity rich successors emerge, there will be a growing demand for increasingly geographically specific messaging to be delivered at lightning speed. Just as consumers have driven the feature set of Next Generation 9-1-1, so too can we count upon the devices and methods of daily interpersonal communications to play an integral role in shaping how we communicate with our communities in every situation.

But no matter how far technology advances, the responsibility for its proper use remains with us.  It is our job to deliver potentially life-saving warnings with both speed and precision. And when errors occur, we must correct them with the same urgency, while forthrightly addressing why we have failed. Without that, public trust is lost. And public trust remains the key component of any notification system.


With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in four states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community. See



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