As I sit here in the midst of the latest Nor’easter to hit the Boston area, I’m tracking interesting uses of our mass notification system to manage the preparation, response and sending of a severe weather notification across the country. Below are couple quick observations of best practices in use by clients that can help you better leverage your emergency notification system and weather the storm.
Automated Severe Weather Notification
While the storm hitting the east coast right now was anticipated and surprised no one, severe weather can happen quickly. Many of our clients configure automated notifications to be sent to select administrators as conditions arise. Tornado watches and warnings are a great example. As notices are published by the national weather services for a given area, those who are responsible for making the broader community aware of threats are automatically notified.
Many times, weather watches (or “preparatory” messages) may also be automatically posted to social media channels. As the severity and likelihood of impact increases, many organizations choose to send automatic severe weather notification alerts to the broader community using multiple communication channels - such as SMS text, email and voice broadcasts - to ensure the alerts are received by everybody at risk of danger as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Carefully Plan Communications before the Incident
There are a couple of interesting observations here. First, thinking in advance about the various scenarios and phases of a severe weather event will help you identify the right messages, audiences, and modes of individual or mass communication. Thereafter, you need to identify which are the most effective modes of communication to ensure alerts are received in good time for “end-users” to prepare for the consequences of the severe weather event or evacuate the area.
Furthermore, you have to plan your “chain of command” so the administrator(s) responsible for receiving and sending severe weather notification alerts are aware of their roles and how to execute them. It is recommended each administrator has at least two points of contact and that the chain is tested twice annually so administrators are kept familiar with the process, and so end-users are aware of how they will contacted with severe weather notification alerts.
Messaging Fatigue and its Consequences
Messaging fatigue is an acknowledged scenario in which a messaged group (employees or students for example) tire of receiving too many messages or too many non-relevant messages. The consequences of messaging fatigue are, when the ring tone for a new message sounds, the recipient will delay in reading the message, or ignore it all together - potentially placing their lives and the lives of their family, friends or colleagues in danger.
When severe weather is imminent, it is likely end-users will be receiving severe weather notification alerts through various media and from multiple providers in addition to the “normal” volume of communications they are exposed to. Not all the information being broadcast or shared will be relevant to the end-user due to a lack of localization and - due to the noise being created by multiple, non-relevant messages - the risk of messaging fatigue is increased.
How to Overcome Messaging Fatigue
In order for an emergency notification system to be effective, it is essential messaging fatigue does not become an issue so the right messages are received by the right people at the right time. There are several ways of overcoming messaging fatigue to achieve an effective emergency notification system:
- Twice-yearly tests of the emergency notification system will keep the system in the forefront of end-users´ minds.
- Ask end-users to assign a different ring tone or message alert to communications from the emergency notification system.
- Use both short code and long code messages so end-users can be alerted to an emergency by SMS and learn more about it via email.
- Implement “opt-in” emergency notification systems that families and friends can join as an extra source of severe weather notification alert.
- Divide your database into “user groups” so that messages can be sent to end-users by their location, role or other characteristic.
Many community organizations, universities and businesses have taken advantage of being able to divide their databases into groups and sub-groups in order to make their emergency notification services more effective. Not only does this categorization of end-users result in the systems being able to send more relevant, localized alerts, it can also be used to request help from end-users that are medically trained or CERT-qualified, and to send area-by-area all-clear messages as the storms pass.
More about Dividing a Database into Groups
Dividing a database into groups gives administrators more control over what messages are sent to whom, and when. For example, when different parts of a university are susceptible to power outages, administrators can consider who would need to be notified in each of those areas and avoid creating message fatigue - For example, by not sending non-relevant messages about a power out in a dorm to commuter students. The same control can be applied in the community or in the workplace.
Dividing a database into groups is not particularly difficult. There are a number of tools that can help export existing, sorted databases into a mass notification system; or end-users can be invited to sort themselves into groups - either via a web-based portal on which they can list their special skills and special needs (i.e. if they have mobility issues) or via an SMS opt-in/out-out service similar to that used by retailers for marketing and promotions.
The Benefits of SMS Opt-In/Opt-Out Notification Systems
Emergency notification systems that support dividing a database into groups usually allow for an unlimited number of groups and sub-groups. They also allow for end-users to belong to more than one group/sub-group, as mechanisms exist to prevent more than one severe weather notification being sent to each cellphone number, email address or social media account - thus mitigating the risk of messaging fatigue.
There will naturally be some groups administrators have exclusive control over (for example, campus security), but in certain cases end-users can be encouraged to join relevant groups by sending an SMS text message to a short code number (i.e. “MEDIC” to 123456). End users can join as many groups as they wish, and simply leave the group by texting “STOP” to the same short code number. This service can have many uses and benefits:
- Visitors and tourists can opt into a mass notification system when they arrive in the area, and opt out again when they leave.
- End-users, for whom English is not their first language, can opt into a group to receive severe weather notification alerts in their native language.
- Employees can opt into groups especially created to provide information about commuting by road, by rail or by air during severe weather.
- A special group can be created for pet owners in order to send specific information about emergency management facilities for pets.
- Students´ parents can opt-into an emergency notification system while their child is at the university, and opt out again once they have graduated.
The obvious extension of this service is to use it for non-emergency events. Universities and colleges could use the service to advise students of extra-curricular activities. Business could use the service to keep employees up-to-date with the latest opportunities for promotion, and communities could use the service to advertise local events. In theory, the service could also be monetized by creating groups for end-users interested in promotions from specific retailers.
Two-Way Communication is Two-Way Situational Awareness
Any effective emergency notification system can improve the situational awareness of end-users subscribed to them before, during and after severe weather. However, two-way emergency notification systems - for example those supporting an SMS opt-in/out-out service - provide two-way situational awareness. Not only can students, employees, citizens, etc. use the system to seek assistance, but also relay information of importance to first responders and emergency incident managers.
For example, the system can be used to guide first responders to where groups of students, employees, citizens, etc. have taken shelter from the severe weather. Alternatively, the system can be used to report information such as impassable roads, flooding rivers, or other infrastructure issues that will allow emergency managers to adjust response strategies based on real-time feedback. This latter use can save valuable time in responding to severe weather and potentially save many lives.
Summary of Severe Weather Notification Best Practices
In conclusion, an emergency mass notification system has many more uses than sending severe weather notification alerts. Those that are most effective are automated, prepared, and have mechanisms in place to mitigate the risk of messaging fatigue - indeed, no matter how well an emergency mass notification system is automated and prepared, it will likely fail to achieve maximum effectiveness if the five best practices to mitigate the risk of messaging fatigue are not implemented.