One Unread Message
In a world of evolving technology at every corner, it’s no wonder that questions arise as to how these technologies can improve not only convenience — but safety and security. CDW Government Inc. (CDW-G), a source of IT solutions to governments and educators, sought answers in its recent survey, “This is a Test – This is Only a Test: Updating America’s Emergency Alert Infrastructure.”
The evaluation, which surveyed 1,448 residents in the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the United States including Atlanta, New York City and Miami, searched for why emergency notification capabilities are not evolving with advances in technology and changing information consumption habits.
Houston Thomas, public safety business development manager of CDW-G, says the company completed the survey because it was interested in receiving feedback from citizens themselves regarding how they feel about their local government and its ability to communicate in an emergency and/or disaster.
Though fully one-third of respondents said they have no knowledge of or experience with their city emergency notification program, most are interested in obtaining information about weather threats (82 percent), terrorist threats or incidents (76 percent), major roadway closures (70 percent) and health threats (66 percent) via emergency alerts. But despite this clear desire for information, respondents gave their cities, schools and offices mixed reviews on their ability to deliver essential information in an emergency. Just 36 percent said their city is “very strong” or “good” at informing citizens.
Thomas cites a reason for this poor approval: Even with the availability of the most current and useful way to relay emergency information — text messaging — 73 percent of respondents said their city or county government still uses television and 59 percent said their government uses radio to get information to them. The survey found these numbers even though:
Fewer people were watching network television in spring 2007 than in spring 2006, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Wireless subscribers in America are at an all-time national high of 250 million subscribers, according to CTIA (The Wireless Association).
One billion text messages are sent a day, an increase of 130 percent over June 2006.
Satellite radio subscribers in the United States are up 14.58 million from 2003.
“Television and radio were the first ones and the main ones we have been using for major disasters,” Thomas says.
But, since TV and radio require access to electricity that may not be available during emergencies, Jim Grass, CDW-G senior director of state and local sales, says that in a crisis situation, the ability to receive information right away when traditional power sources may be unavailable is critical. “Television, radio and text messaging all have a role to play in disseminating emergency information, but only text messaging ‘pushes’ information to citizens wherever they are,” he says.
Text messaging may have the best ability to reach citizens, but the survey found that two-thirds of people are unsure if their city or county has such a system.
This critical gap of awareness may originate in the fact that some governments have not prioritized investing in mass notification — and Thomas says that has to change. “There has to be an awakening of citizens. Cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco are undergoing modern text alert pilot projects, but if they were more publicized, it may bridge that gap,” he says. “These tools are great for everyday emergencies, but awareness is a difficult task in this arena, and it’s not a subject that’s everyone is excited about.”
Both Thomas and Grass say that although texting can be seen as a juvenile tool, its value is immediacy. “If there is a lookout for a certain car on the highway I am on, it doesn’t help if I only find out once I am home and turn on the news,” Thomas says.
Grass says, “A continuity of operations strategy that includes both active and passive information distribution methods is key to reaching as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.”
Ten percent of respondents said their city has a modern emergency notification system, which may include text or e-mail alerts, and that number is too small, according to CDW-G. Citizens can find out what kind of emergency alert system their city has by going to the Web site of their city or county department of emergency management, or can type a city into an Internet search engine along with the term “emergency alert.” This will give registration sites and options. “Once you find that your city and county has an alert notification, registration is simple. The Web site asks basic information such as what type of cell phone and service you have, and asks a few questions to refine the message you want to receive,” Thomas says. These kinds of preferences can narrow your messages to just traffic, crime, weather or terrorist activity reports.
However, Thomas says that if searching for a city’s system comes up bare, citizens can take a stance with their government and make a change. “This is not out of their control. This is our government, and as citizens, we fund it and we vote them in,” Thomas states. “If we are not happy with how things are run, we should voice those opinions.”
Thomas suggests that if the community’s standards of emergency alert are not up to par, it’s imperative to reach out to an official. He also says not to let complacency set in. “It seems the further we get away from an event, the less we think about future events.”
How Did YOUR CITY Rank?
The CDW-G Survey, “This is a Test – This is Only a Test: Updating America’s Emergency Alert Infrastructure,” asked city residents from the 20 largest U.S. metropolitan areas how would they rate their city on performance of alerting citizens. Here are the 10 cities that ranked the highest according to scale of 0-5, 5 being a strong performance.