On January 13th, 2018 residents and visitors of Hawaii, received an emergency alert stating that there was an incoming ballistic missile. In a CBC interview, Jonathan Scheuer told reporters he took his family to their guest room as he believed it was safer on the ground floor of their Honolulu home. “What do we do? Where do we go? The warning only said to seek shelter in a building. Clearly, there is a massive gap between letting people know there is something coming and having something for them to do.”
In British Columbia and the US, the 2018 fire season was one of the most intense on record. Many communities were evacuated, and residents were moved to emergency housing. Once the Evacuation Order was given, and residents left the area, it was very difficult to determine who left, who stayed behind and who arrived at the emergency housing. moreover, residents who were not on Facebook had difficulty staying informed on what was happening. This is troubling considering that there has been an increase in the number of people who disobey evacuation orders and stay behind to protect their property.
On August 1st, 2018 two residents of Toronto, Ontario were to receive an emergency alert from Canada’s Emergency Alert System (EAS). When CBC Ottawa asked residents if they received the message, many stated that they did not. One response stated that he and his wife were on a shared plan with the same type of device and together at the time. He received the message and she did not. He added that the message was vague and did not provide any useful information.
Over the last two years, we have seen several emergency alert systems developed, tested and deployed with varying results. An effective EAS can provide the public with enough time and information to increase their chance of survival should a disaster strike suddenly and then help you track, register and communicate with those affected by the incident. Conversely, a poorly designed and implemented system can cause panic and chaos.
Creating an effective EAS is a massive undertaking. Ensuring that it works across devices and platforms and testing with the phone software updates is a never-ending battle. Unfortunately, with the current systems, you only find out if the message was delivered in the press the next morning.
“with the current systems, you only find out if the message was delivered in the press the next morning.”
Fortunately, before the next disaster, there are ways to fill the gap in the current EAS systems by adding these 3 simple components.
Provide a system that the public can use during peacetime. If the public can use the system during times of peace, they will be able to receive the message when it counts and increase the chances the user will pay attention and understand what to do. An example is the BC Wildfire App. It simply sends out current and relevant information about fire bans, notices from government and a map of new fires. Over 30,000 BC residents provided informed consent to access their device location in exchange for more relevant updates. Not only did these residents self-register, but Emergency Services could also ask them to self- identify as an evacuee.
2. Allow two-way discussion and acknowledgment. To reduce panic and provide meaningful information, it is important that the recipients can send messages and ask questions. Most agencies deliberately make it one-way communications as they are concerned over volume, however, if you can characterize and streamline communications, this will not become an issue. Two-way communications are an easy way to reduce stress and prevent panic and provide valuable information for responders.
3. Geo-tag everything! When the disaster hits, it is critical to get a picture of who has received the message and has left the area, who is out of town and who is in harm’s way. This can be accomplished by geotagging the messages and encouraging dialog. This will provide an almost real-time mapping of the incident and improve the speed, flow and direction of the response.
There is always room for improvement however, these 3 simple improvements will result in a significantly better result the next time an EAS is tested or activated during an emergency.