Avoiding Mass Notification Failures During Winter Storms

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath


avoiding mass notification failuresA recent winter storm brought to light several best practices that should be followed in avoiding mass notification failures. In November 2018, New York City was hit with a surprise snowstorm that caused significant public transportation delays and inconvenienced residents in all five boroughs. 

The city was only expected to receive one or two inches of snow before the weather turned to freezing rain, but the storm came down with unexpected force and dumped up to six inches on the area and causing chaos.

The first snow of the season was a wintry mix of rain, snow, and sleet that made navigating the city treacherous, and hit the Bronx especially hard. It was not only the first big storm of the year, but it was also the earliest storm for New York City in decades, with the city not seeing this much snow in November since 1938, as reported by the New York Times. The storm is part of the abnormal weather patterns that have become the new normal across the United States amidst mounting concerns about global climate change. 

Meteorologists anticipated two inches of snow over one hour in New York City and the surrounding area. Instead, the storm continued for three or more hours and resulted in almost half a foot of snow. It’s during a winter storm where conditions are changing that emergency notifications become especially important. The National Weather Service issued storm warnings for the area, including winter advisories and flooding warnings. The Department of Sanitation prepared to deploy 695 salt spreaders for the boroughs, and the MTA had to keep commuters aware of delays on subway and bus lines as the storm developed. 

The first snow in New York City demonstrated the need for an effective emergency notification system for winter weather across wintry regions of the United States. There are many services residents rely on, and it’s important to keep the community informed of any changes in schedule or closings. However, it’s even more important that residents are informed of any changes in winter weather, as these can cause serious safety risks. It’s always best to be prepared - and this includes readiness for power outages or changes in the weather that might prevent people from leaving home. Residents want to make sure to have food and water in the home in case of an emergency.

Even though mass notification failures or false alarms are rare, they are not unheard of. In January, 2018, a false ballistic missile alert was sent out via the Emergency Alert System over television, radio, and cellphone in Hawaii. The message advised residents to seek shelter, and even said “This is not a drill”. The alert was sent out by a supervisor who conducted a drill that was not scheduled, and amidst confusion and miscommunication sent out the alert. The incident became an infamous example of how emergency alerting can go wrong, and emphasized the need to have a prepared emergency management staff and be aware of alerting best practices.

Related Article: How California's Disaster Communication Plan Failed Residents  During Deadly Wildfires

Best Practices For Avoiding Mass Notification Failures

According to Scott McGrath, Rave Mobile Safety's Public Safety Solutions Architect, emergency managers should follow these best practices for avoiding mass notification failures:

  1. Prepare different message templates for different conditions
  2. Plan staffing needs ahead of the anticipated emergency
  3. Consider the best delivery modes
  4. Find a vendor that can guarantee the "five nines" or 99.999% in system reliability

Winter storm message failures are most likely to occur in situations where emergency managers are handling alerts for a large region. For example, New York City poses unique challenges due to the vastness of the city and population density in each borough. There’s also the challenge of handling various messages for the city, since a storm can impact everything from subway transportation to road closures to power grids. For this reason, it can be helpful to prepare templates for different conditions. This way, you will be prepared to cover expected conditions such as closures, delayed openings, recommended actions, or postponements.

Be sure to consider staffing ahead of the winter storm. The appropriate personnel should be on hand to decide what alerts are appropriate and how frequent these messages should be as weather changes. Amid changing conditions, timing is also important to consider. In metropolitan areas with large populations of commuters, it’s critical to get messages out before people head out into hazardous conditions. In certain areas, it is possible to code weather alerts and update relevant areas where conditions will be worst.

The final decision an emergency manager should be prepared to make during winter storm announcements is to consider the best delivery modes. There is text, e-mail, voice, social media, or through local news outlets, and emergency managers need to decide how to most effectively reach residents where they are. In most cases, it is best to issue the alert through all modes of communication, as this will give the message the greatest potential to reach the community.

Choosing the right emergency alert vendor is essential in ensuring winter storm alerts are effective. In order to best reach residents, it’s important that your emergency alert vendor supports multiple forms of delivery. The emergency alert system should be able to reach out via the many forms of communication, especially as residents increasingly rely on mobile, digital technology for news and essential updates. Find a vendor who guarantees five nines, or that systems will be up 99.999% of the time. When it comes to emergency communications, the importance of reliability should not be understated.

Choosing an Emergency Alert Vendor

The best emergency alert system will have versatile alert capability that is fast and reliable. Emergency managers should choose a system that allows them to send unlimited messages to unlimited recipient. The emergency alert provider should have a comprehensive customer feedback program, to better understand the needs of the communities implementing the tool. The more customers participate, the better these tools can serve emergency management teams. 

Look for a mass notification system with an easy to use interface that allows emergency management to send an alert in two clicks through any mode of communication. This simple design will help prevent alert mishaps, and pre-set templates make it even easier for those unfamiliar with the system to issue an appropriate message. The system also has unlimited audience segmentation, which means that those handling winter warnings for large communities in both urban or rural areas will be able to target messages. This tool can be used even as weather changes or incident updates become more frequent.

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.


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