4 Types of Emergency Alert and Warning Systems

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The average American spends more than three hours a day on their smartphone. We live in a time where people desire information and expect it quickly – especially during critical incidents and disasters. Whether dealing with an evacuation due to flooding, an active-shooter situation or a political demonstration gone awry, public safety agencies must know how to disseminate information to the public, both quickly and accurately. Public safety agencies should be the first to provide the information by leading the story and letting the media highlight the events.

In the event of a critical incident, there are four types of emergency alert and warning systems agencies can use to disseminate information:

  1. Mass Notification Systems
    • Sends a recorded message to an affected area by matching phone users to a physical address using landline E-911 data or through opt-in
    • Limitations: Landline phones use is decreasing, meaning fewer recipients; in some cases, recipient must opt-in to receive messages; hearing impaired may not receive the message
  1. Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA)
    • Sends text notification message to all mobile phones in affected geographical area (i.e. National Weather Service, Amber ALERT, Presidential Alert)
    • Connected with Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS)
    • Disrupts mobile phone’s silent mode to alert recipient of message
    • Limitations: Message is limited to 360 characters
  1. SMS Text Systems
    • Sends SMS text message to users through agency database or required opt-in
    • Opt-in available through short code text message or online form
    • Can be used for non-emergency communications (community information, events, etc.)
    • Limitations: If opt-in required, not all residents will receive alerts
  1. Outdoor Public Warning Systems
    • System of stationary sirens/speakers strategically placed throughout the community
    • May be activated individually or in groups
    • Can signal via alert tone or broadcast a specific message
    • Opt-in not required
    • Limitations: Reaches only those within an audible range; ineffective for the hearing impaired

“Whether dealing with an evacuation due to flooding, an active-shooter situation or a political demonstration gone awry, public safety agencies must know how to disseminate information to the public, both quickly and accurately.”

Best Practices

There are several best practices to consider when using public alert systems. First, develop and implement an Alert & Warning Plan that delineates how messages will be sent and includes message templates. This plan should answer the following questions: Who has the authority to initiate/send messages? What system(s) is used for which type of emergency? Which system(s) requires registration/opting-in? Answering these questions before an incident occurs saves time and eliminates confusion in the heat of the moment. Similarly, developing message templates for different types of situations (active shooter, evacuation, school lockdown, etc.) can help ensure consistency across incidents.

Don’t forget about the technology side of these systems, either. Best practices include checking your website bandwidth to ensure it can support a large number of visitors and scheduling regular test messaging to ensure proper delivery to the correct area. Alerts have limited effectiveness when delivered via just one system. Instead, use redundant systems to increase alert coverage and inform your entire community.

Most importantly, educate your community about how your agency communicates during major incidents and stress the importance of opting-in.

To learn more about emergency communications, watch the recent on-demand webinar: Time-Critical: Communicating Effectively During Disasters and Major Incidents.

Jordan Villwock

Jordan Villwock is the Emergency Operations Coordinator for the Laguna Beach (CA) Police Department. He is responsible for managing the Laguna Beach Emergency Operations Center, coordinating the city’s emergency management training and managing the AlertOC mass notification system as well as the department’s social media platforms. Jordan has been involved with the department since high school, when he joined the Laguna Beach Police Explorers. He later became a dispatcher while attending college. In 2019, Jordan was named chairman of the Orange County Emergency Management Organization, a group of more than 120 Orange County agencies with a mission to support countywide efforts to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters.

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