California city combines advanced technology with dedicated public safety team for comprehensive emergency management
The highly unusual circumstances of the past year have provided many new lessons for political leaders and emergency managers. The overarching lesson is that the unexpected can happen at any time and local, regional and national government must be prepared to respond rapidly in a collaborative manner with the private sector and residents.
Comprehensive emergency management must involve not only timely, effective responses, but also detailed and actionable communication, which includes life-safety information. State-of-the-art technology is playing a critical role in the U.S. and abroad, making it easier for multiple agencies and emergency personnel to work together to respond to and manage dangerous natural disasters, including wildfires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, extreme weather and other critical events.
A 20-year study of natural disasters by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) determined that, besides the immense financial costs, an average of 68,000 people lose their lives annually due to disasters, and more than 218 million others are impacted by these crisis situations.
In the California city of Mill Valley, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, the introduction of advanced emergency warning and communications technology provides residents and visitors a new way to receive emergency alerts and notifications. In July 2019, Mill Valley replaced the air raid sirens on five of its existing siren poles with a satellite-connected system consisting of outdoor, long-range speaker arrays operated by command-and-control software. These arrays broadcast highly audible alerts and detailed information and instructions over long distances. Most siren installations still used in many U.S. communities are incapable of delivering intelligible voice messages regarding the emergency or the specific actions the public should take to stay safe. The new speaker arrays have helped bring peace of mind to Mill Valley’s elected officials, emergency managers and residents.
“After the Oakland Hills fire, one of our priorities became procuring better methods to communicate with residents,” said Tom Welch, deputy chief of the Mill Valley Fire Department. “Not only does our new technology allow a proactive response, but it also enables us to better manage our communication during and after an emergency, assisting emergency responders and the entire community.”
The new equipment is IPAWS-compliant, works in tandem with other systems already in place and adds an important capability for community safety. Mill Valley lies in a “trifecta” of severity zones, with moderate risk for floods and high risk for fires and earthquakes, making mandatory evacuations highly probable when these disasters strike. These systems can deliver live or pre-programmed alerts, notifications and essential information during an emergency and for post-disaster recovery. The systems can be remotely activated and operated via any computer or mobile device by authorized personnel.
In addition to broadcasting highly intelligible voice messages, another noteworthy improvement this equipment has over its predecessor sirens is the capability of functioning independently of existing power and telecommunications infrastructure. During planned safety power shutoffs when power is purposefully turned off by utilities during severe weather or wildfire threats, or when infrastructure fails or is damaged during disasters, these advanced systems continue to operate on solar power, battery backup and satellite connectivity.
“Everyone involved in our emergency response—fire, police, EMS, Marin County Office of Emergency Services and elected officials—are completely dedicated to public safety,” Welch said. “When considering new technologies, we came together for demonstrations of the equipment with a goal of seamless transition from our existing emergency infrastructure. The community feedback has been very positive to date, and we are planning to add additional towers in the near future to build out certain areas in the community that need enhanced early warning coverage.”
These technologically advanced mass notification systems have been steadily replacing outdated sirens as communities place higher priorities on public safety and emergency preparedness. Coronavirus and the associated uncertainty, particularly early in the pandemic, reinforced the need to examine all emergency measures and evaluate how to better respond to unexpected crises, as well as to known public safety risks.
“To government decision makers considering adding advanced technologies to their emergency response tool kit, I would emphasize that the life-saving capabilities of this system are well worth the investment,” Welch said. “This expansion has enabled all of our different agencies to operate better as a unified command and increased the size and scope of our response to better serve our community. I’d strongly suggest asking vendors for references from other communities and taking the proper time for due diligence before selecting a technology provider. Don’t just focus on the equipment, but also on training and long-term support.”
Emergency warning systems that are compliant with IPAWS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s public alert system, are better positioned to respond with maximum efficiency to any local, regional or national crisis. The Department of Homeland Security recently announced it will be developing an Alerts, Warnings and Notifications (AWN) Guidance Tool to detail best practices for disseminating emergency and life-saving information, further demonstrating the national commitment to public safety and increased communication during emergencies. While public safety leadership at the national level is important, it’s local and regional action to protect cities and local communities, such as is being undertaken by Mill Valley, that directly helps keep residents safe during disasters and other critical events.
Chris Roller is vice president of U.S. & International Integrated Mass Notification Systems at Genasys, a global provider of critical communications solutions.