The (smarter) siren song
While there’s an ongoing political debate about what’s caused natural disasters to increase in recent decades, what’s not open for question is that government leaders and public safety officials must be more prepared for these often-deadly events in order to save lives.
Traditional sirens have limitations
Although sirens are incapable of providing geographically-targeted information about the nature of an emergency and the necessary actions to protect and save lives, many regions rely on them to warn and alert the public of impending danger. In areas where sirens are frequently sounded or tested, the public may either ignore them or follow a pre-set emergency plan that could place them in danger due to the unique circumstances of an unfolding event.
In this critical area of public safety communication, emergency officials and community leaders are also realizing that older systems become inoperable if existing power and communication infrastructure fail. As the older systems continue to age, maintenance is also an issue.
Mass notification technology advances
New advances in mass notification technology now enable emergency management officials to provide at-risk populations geographically-targeted, audible voice warnings, notifications and actionable information before, during and after a disaster. These systems are solar powered, have battery backup, and feature satellite connectivity to provide greater system effectiveness and reliability. Software applications are also available to issue geo-targeted alerts to cell phones.
These newly available public safety mass notification systems are cloud-based, secure and can be remotely-activated and controlled by authorized users via cell phones, tablets, desktops or laptops. Using integrated voice/siren installations, community leaders and emergency management officials can alert and provide potentially lifesaving information to populations in affected areas. Location-based mobile mass messaging to the cell phones of people in affected areas is also a critical capability of these advanced, yet easy-to-use community safety solutions.
Sophisticated acoustic modeling software allows today’s design engineers to predict and assess each community environment, identify potential problems, and recommend integration and equipment choices tailored to a city or region’s unique needs and topography.
Mill Valley’s new system
This year, Mill Valley, Calif., officials replaced all five of the city’s decades-old siren-only installations with advanced voice/siren systems that are satellite-connected and have battery backup for 72 hours of continuous operation. Mill Valley Mayor James Wickham states that the new systems are more powerful and project both siren and voice recordings to alert and inform the community.
Mill Valley Fire Battalion Chief Scott Barnes pointed out further benefits of the systems. “We’re concerned about natural disasters, and we’re trying to use every tool in our toolbox to get the community prepared,” Barnes says. “The great thing about this system is it’s not run off communication lines. As we’ve seen in past fires in other communities, the infrastructure burns down, so the warning systems don’t work. This is all satellite-based, so we don’t have that problem.”
National Institutes of Standards and Technology
In its research, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) found that warning message content is critical to successfully protecting the public. NIST found that the most effective warning messages had the following elements: the name of the agency delivering the warning, information on the hazard and danger, a description of the location and the risk of hazard, instructions to evacuate or shelter-in-place and updating guidance on when and what at-risk populations should do.
For greater effectiveness, system standardization is important for communities in the same region. People often work or shop in other towns near their homes. Having a standard system with the same regional testing dates, times, protocols and messages produces improved public safety when a crisis occurs.
Coordination among private interests and local government further supports public safety when disasters strike. These integrated warning teams are comprised of organizations such as the National Weather Service, public utilities, media outlets, elected officials, emergency managers, sports teams, non-profits, medical facilities and law enforcement. Their goal is to plan and integrate resources and services ahead of time so that essential, life-saving resources are marshalled most effectively during local or wide-area emergencies.
Lives are at stake
With the increasing threat of disasters and other dangerous situations, emergency managers and other officials tasked with keeping the public safe need to evaluate the risks of relying on last-century technology as standalone public safety solutions. These installations may not operate when existing power and communication infrastructure fail and most are incapable of broadcasting intelligible voice messages containing specific information on the nature of the emergency and the actions necessary to protect lives. Technological advances in emergency warning and public safety notification are now providing new, highly-effective critical communication solutions to better protect the public before, during and after disasters and other crisis events.
Richard Danforth is CEO of Genasys, a leading company for critical communications systems serving communities in the U.S. and abroad.