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Addressing Diverse Human Behavior Issues in the New Era Of Multi-Layered Emergency Communications

Author: Joe Wilson, Federal Signal

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-02-13
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We have more ways to communicate with each other than ever.  Unfortunately, when it comes to urgent warnings and mass notifications, it seems everyone may not be on the same channel.

The flood of new technology makes it easier than ever to reach out and communicate with someone, right?  Think again.  While it's true that communicating with "someone" may indeed be easier, achieving dependable communications with "everyone" on a moment’s notice and in an emergency crisis is at least as much of a challenge as ever.  So why is that?

The growth in the number of ways we communicate has been nothing short of breathtaking: cell phones, texting, satellite radios, e-mail, instant messaging, smartphones and similar wireless broadband devices, social networking media including Twitter and Facebook.  When you consider that less than a decade ago the layers of communication employed for alerting and mass notification were essentially limited to broadcast media and outdoor sirens, it's easy to see how why planning emergency communication systems has become substantially more complex.

According to Federal Signal's 2011 Public Safety survey conducted by Zogby, 89.5% of Americans would use multiple forms of communication in the absence of landline or cell phone service.  This includes everything from video chat, Twitter and text messaging, to instant messaging, e-mail and Facebook.  Some people would use just text (12.5%) while others would opt for e-mail alone (15.2%).  However, 37.5% would use a combination of texting, e-mail plus social media postings.

The varied messaging formats accompanying these technologies continue to drive the latest generations of first-responder communications and citizen warning and mass notification systems.  Still, it's become increasingly apparent that new communication channels must be evaluated in context with a host of human behavioral factors.  This includes the diverse behavioral habits, perceptions, needs and cultural differences of individuals and whole groups of people.  This is not to say that factors such as age, physical disabilities, language and cultural differences have not been a concern in developing alerting/notification systems in the past.  But it is clear that these new technologies call for increased scrutiny of the behavioral factors that impact their effectiveness, and define their role in alerting and mass notification strategies.

Growth in formats like SMS, social media and other IP-based messaging mediums has created exciting opportunities to more effectively manage emergency events.  This is evident in the rapid development of network-based, multi-device communications interoperability.  It can also be seen in the integration of third-party notification alerts (i.e., National Weather Service (NOAA) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Software-based advances in interoperability and integration have led to subsequent developments in other areas, including real-time, tiered-response scenario management systems, and more sophisticated citizen-alerting capabilities featuring, among other things, GIS targeting warning capabilities.  It is no coincidence that many of these developments (most notably the areas of interoperability and system integration) can be traced directly to the RF communication failures experienced by police and fire personnel who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attack.


Cell phones, texting and social media dramatically expand the reach of emergency least until something goes wrong.

Recognizing any limitations that accompany a particular technology is critical, as has been illustrated by the campus shooting incidents at institutions like Virginia Tech (April 2007) and Northern Illinois University (February 2008) where cell phone towers were quickly overwhelmed by the substantial increase in call traffic.  Hurricane Katrina (August 2005) offers another example, where in this case much of the telephone and internet infrastructure was completely destroyed.

Though redundancy in alerting/notification systems is not a new concept, the campus shootings emphasize the need to recognize that many new messaging technologies share common physical platforms (i.e., cell phones and texting, or e-mail, instant messaging and social media), adversely affecting both access and transmission speed in a disaster, and resulting in simultaneous service disruptions across several "layers" of communications.  

Industry experts express confidence that improvements in the speed at which voice and text can be transmitted will be forthcoming as additional bandwidth becomes available.  Additionally, it is inevitable that usage of more sophisticated devices such as smartphones will become more widespread in the future.  That's why redundancy will remain a key component of emergency communications, as will justification to continue supporting traditional mediums for warnings and alerts such as broadcast television and radio, and outdoor sirens and horns.


Expanding your communications reach is one thing...maintaining the same level of control can be another matter.

Emergency managers are obviously capable of controlling audible warning devices such as electro-mechanical horns and sirens, and radio and television broadcasting.  However, though traditional "one-to-many" warning platforms have evolved in sophistication (i.e., high-output horns offering multiple tones, coded blasts, etc.), emergency planners must still equate system effectiveness in context with a variety of human behaviors that can often be difficult to accommodate if not impossible to predict.

The issue of control becomes more complex as new layers of communication such as cell phones, SMS and IP-based devices are integrated into emergency warning and notification systems.  As these technologies become more widely used, emergency planners will have to consider the expanded role the untrained public play in the process, and ultimately bear some responsibility for system performance.

While public safety personnel and first responders understand how to use communication devices and systems, that is not always the case with the general population.  Setting aside how a device is used, there are other issues, maintenance, for instance.  Not everyone is concerned if their cell phone is fully charged, or even if it is turned on.  Also, it's unlikely the average cell phone-user understands that text requires less bandwidth than voice communications.  Consequently, when there are spikes in usage or damage to infrastructure, they are unaware that texting short messages is the preferred if not the only means of two-way communications.

Effective emergency communications also demands vigilance with regards to the source and credibility of information.  When professionals control the network, there is a much higher degree of confidence in the accuracy of broadcasted information and instructions.   When civilians disseminate information, however, the emergency manager sacrifices some measure of control.  Bad information and rumors have revealed themselves to be a downside of the now easily accessible technologies such as SMS and social media.  It is safe to say that the last thing needed in the event of a weather disaster or terrorist event is widespread distribution of inaccurate or false information via unofficial social networks.


New technology gives you the ability to reach virtually anyone.  But communicating with everyone calls for some understanding of human behavior.

New technologies are definitely having a significant impact on the development of emergency communications and mass notification strategies.  However, they are not the end-all, and it would be a mistake to casually dismiss distinctive human behaviors associated with such factors as age, physical and mental handicaps, ethnicity, language, gender and familiarity with new technology.  In truth, the variables associated with human behavior are as critical to emergency communications and preparedness as they were before cell phones, texting and IP-based technology ever arrived on the scene, with many experts concurring even more so.

A good example is language.  Though English may be the predominant language in the U.S., many of today's emergency managers face the diverse needs of a multilingual audience.  For those whom English is their secondary language, it is likely that they think faster and more clearly in their native tongue.  This illustrates why maintaining flexibility to accommodate the unique needs of different audiences is so critical to communications strategies.  If someone is unable to read English or is simply illiterate a text message on a smartphone platform really isn't going to do them any good, is it?

Adopting English is a generational issue for many U.S. immigrants.  Consequently, there will always be a need for multilingual capabilities.  Though siren tones can address many of these citizens' needs, some education or training in the receivers' native language is required.  While text and voice messages for non-English speakers do present some unique challenges, promising new computer-aided language translation technologies offer a number of readily deployable solutions.


The fact that you're sending messages does not necessarily mean people are listening, understanding or paying attention to you.

To understand how particular technologies are having their own unique effect on human behavior consider how the hundreds of e-mails individuals receive ever day compares with the overuse of public address, fire alarm and other warning systems.  Similarly, the issue of increased communications volume that now approaches overload are in many instances making people immune to the actual messaging--including critical warnings and alerts.

The issue here, of course, is information overload that leads to desensitization.  In the past, commercial fire alarms could only be activated to signal a legitimate fire warning.  The reason was simple:  Using an alarm for other reasons potentially desensitizes citizens to future warnings, and might possibly cause unnecessary confusion and panic in the present.


A majority of the people now relies almost exclusively on their cell phones...and yet there appears to be ample reason why emergency planners shouldn't do the same.

Federal Signal's 2010 Public Safety survey, also conducted by Zogby, revealed that 60% of U.S. households rely on cell phones to the exclusion of landlines.  Interestingly, however, many people who have cell phones don't use them in the same fashion as they use landlines.  Many people--particularly those in older age groups--opt to keep them turned off until they need to make a call.  Additionally, though emergency planners and technology providers may be cognizant of the limitations of cellular, the vast majority of the public is unaware that a large-scale disaster would almost certainly overload current cell networks as well as internet-based communications.


It is important to recognize that the audience's knowledge, skill and ability to use new technology vary from person to person.

Some people are simply more comfortable with technology than others.  Also, knowledge and familiarity with using different communication devices and messaging formats varies significantly from one group to the next.  For example, younger age groups are likely to be much more technologically savvy than older people, especially seniors who are often resistant to changes resulting from new technology.

Another key finding of the 2010 Public Safety survey highlights the need to evaluate the perceptions of different age groups, or what is commonly referred to as "generational" differences.  Baby boomers, for instance, are more likely to use e-mail rather than texting.  To no one's surprise, teenagers prefer text messaging for its speed.  The study also found that women are more likely (45%) than men (33%) to turn on the television for emergency information, while 49% of 18 to 29 year olds will proactively search for emergency information on the internet.

It is important to note that just because someone can afford to purchase a technologically advanced communications product such as a smartphone is no guarantee they understand how to use it, or will bother to familiarize themselves with its operation and upkeep.  The is also reflected in social media formats with surveys revealing that 60% of Twitter accounts are abandoned within a month, and that 40% of those users that remain have not logged a post in the past 30 days.

The goal of any emergency warning and mass notification system is to reach as much of the general population as quickly as possible.  Consequently, and regardless of how many layers of communications there happen to be, effective systems must employ tools that are easy to use under extreme duress.  Simplicity is important, so emergency planners need to guard against elevated levels of complexity that may make a system difficult to use, or discourage citizens from using the system altogether.   After all, the last thing anyone needs in a highly charged crisis situation where minutes or seconds are crucial is unnecessary complexity.

Joe Wilson is the President for Federal Signal’s Safety and Security Group. Wilson joined Federal Signal in 1987 as the Western Regional Sales Manager for Electrical Products and has continually progressed through the organization into positions of increasing responsibility. In his current role, Wilson is responsible for Federal Signal’s Industrial Division, the Integrated Systems Group, and Alerting and Notification Systems.

For more information, visit Federal Signal.



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