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9-1-1 Magazine: Managing Emergency Communications

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Technology Development & the Power of Human Factors in Emergency Notification Systems

Author: Bob Patnaude, Director of Marketing and Public Relations, Federal Signal Corporation

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-05-13
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New technologies continue to impact the way people communicate.  Consumer needs and preferences are becoming increasingly varied and complex, evidenced by the host of human factors that emergency managers are up against when determining how best to alert members of their community about an emergency or disaster.

In the past, emergency alerts and notifications were largely dependent on outdoor sirens, radio broadcasts and television alerts. Yet, the 2012 Federal Signal Public Safety survey found that 36% of Americans would be motivated to take action in an emergency based on ANS alerts, including call, text and email notifications, over any other form of communication.  Though a variety of human factors such as age, physical disabilities and cultural differences have always been a concern in planning emergency alert and notification systems, the rapid expansion of communication mediums has compounded the communications system development process.  

The Public Safety Survey focused on the emotional reactions of citizens to disasters and emergency situations and evaluated the level of apathy towards public safety, notifications and alerts.  The results concluded that there is work to be done in terms of effectively communicating with the general population. Emergency managers must work together to drive a sense of urgency with regard to improving public safety and effectively address the host of human factors that impair or deter Americans from reacting in a responsible fashion to warning alerts and notifications.

While technology has opened the door to new forms of communication that may make it easier to communicate with “someone,” communicating messages to “everyone” in a moment’s notice during a crisis remains an ongoing challenge. 


Human Factors and Technology Collide

While communication channels have evolved, human factors are not a new challenge for emergency managers. Communication systems must be designed to take into account a variety of human factors, relating to the behaviors, perceptions, needs, limitations, cultural differences and eccentricities of individuals, as well as the general population.  Different individuals and communities have different needs — from the slow technology adapters of the elderly population to younger tech-savvy consumers; those with disabilities such as the blind and deaf; to communities where English is a second language.

Nearly 65 million Americans have some sort of physical disability, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau, presenting a diverse set of challenges for emergency managers.  A large part of this population has hearing or vision impairments, each calling for a different channel of communication to effectively reach these community members in an emergency situation.  While blindness, for instance, calls for greater emphasis on audible warnings, hearing impairment requires visible alerts, such as light- and text-based message formats. 

The diverse U.S. population also requires multilingual emergency communications.  Though English may be the universal language, emergency managers are still faced with meeting the diverse needs of those whose second language is English.  By incorporating multilingual communications tools, emergency managers can reach community members in their native tongue, resulting in a more efficient response from recipients.

New technology allows emergency managers to combat a wide range of human factors by leveraging the wide range of communication channels available today. These channels include landlines, cell phones, pagers, radios, text messaging, public address and intercom systems, LED signage, message boards and strobe alerts, as well as a variety of IP-based technologies, including email, instant messaging, RSS, smart phones, and even social networking technologies such as Twitter and Facebook. 

IP-based technologies have not only greatly expanded the scope of messaging formats (e-mail, SMS, etc.), but they have also opened up new avenues for more effective management of emergency events.  This includes the introduction of multi-communications device interoperability and the integration of mass notification alerts from third parties (i.e., National Weather Service, Department of Homeland Security, etc.).  New GIS applications, like Federal Signal’s GeoSpear, allow emergency managers to reach community members in real time and pinpoint the exact areas where they want to deploy a message. These tools can send a message to specific areas on a map by simply drawing a shape on pre-defined map layers, or by selecting certain zip codes, counties, power grids, etc., offering a more customized notification approach.


Old Meets New: Merging Technology with Tradition

No single alerting system is sufficient.  While technology may allow officials to reach a broader span of community members, it also poses a unique obstacle to emergency managers: getting through the clutter.  Because users of smartphones, mobile devices and even home computers are faced with so many messages in their daily lives, emergency managers may have to fight through white noise in order to drive a sense of urgency around emergency notifications. 

Recognizing the limitations that accompany a particular technology is critical. Not only are community members flooded with electronic alerts and messages that may cause them to overlook an emergency notification, but certain scenarios can limit technology function, from severe weather damaging internet infrastructure to overwhelming call traffic shutting down cell phone towers.  In cases where messaging technologies share the same physical platform for access (i.e., cell phones, texting and internet), traditional warning devices such as sirens and strobe lights continue to represent essential components of emergency warning systems.

Overcoming human factors means more than just adapting to new technologies, it means taking a blended, layered approach to emergency communications.  Each emergency situation calls for its own unique combination of communications and warning technologies.  A weather emergency such as a tornado may be addressed with a mass notification that employs a combination of horns and sirens, public address, e-mail and texting.  A campus intruder incident, however, would most likely call for a more targeted response to a more defined audience. 

The goal of any emergency warning and mass notification system is to reach as much of the general population as quickly as possible, in the most reliable and efficient way.   It’s imperative for emergency managers to take inventory of their notification systems and ensure that no smartphone is left unturned and all necessary communication forms are in place and ready to be instantly activated.


Ensure A More Complete Approach

While new technologies have expanded communications options available to today’s emergency managers, they also bring forth a new set of concerns.  In order to create an alerting and notification system that is effective and efficient, emergency managers need to have a complete understanding of their community needs; apply all relevant technologies and tools, both new and old; and take the necessary steps to ensure preparation for all citizens.


Bob Patnaude is Director of Marketing for Federal Signal, where he has worked intimately with the emergency & critical communications sector since 1997.

To review the results of Federal Signal Corporation's 2012 Public Safety Survey, Revealing Americans' Awareness and Preparedness Surrounding Emergency Situations, visit:






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