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Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions (2018)

Chapter: 4 Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems

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Suggested Citation:"4 Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24935.
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4

Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems

Several challenges, outside of the needed research, exist in building a better alert and warning system. Obviously, alerting and warnings around weather are only as good as the forecasting tools that predict impending severe weather events.

ADOPTION OF ALERT AND WARNING SYSTEMS

The lack of adoption by alert originators (AOs) of the full Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) capabilities is problematic as more and more of the public relies on cell phones for the majority of their communication. Two—of potentially several—reasons for lack of adoption include system costs for jurisdictions and message originators’ education, but even those with access to the IPAWS gateway can be hesitant to use the system. An effort to understand and address barriers to adoption will need to be undertaken.

The social science community’s knowledge around public response needs to be exploited when creating messages or using the system. It is important to note the wide diversity in potential message originators. For smaller jurisdictions and organizations, sending alerts may be a part-time job, and a person may only be active in the emergency response community during events; in the largest jurisdictions or organizations, public alerting may be the responsibility of a large team of individuals who are trained emergency management professionals immersed in disaster response full time.

Suggested Citation:"4 Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24935.
×

Currently, the rules and standards of practice for issuing emergency alerts are fairly rudimentary. Several organizations contribute to these in differing ways—the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines system capabilities, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) manages access to the system (requiring training before granting), and private professional organizations, such as the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA), provide some basic education. A framework is needed that provides the following:

  • Clear rules of engagement and understanding of the system by local jurisdictions and development of alert and warning templates for smaller jurisdictions;
  • Education programs for message originators that focus on understanding mental models in order to shape how these messages will be received, retransmitted (via other channels), and acted upon;
  • Published lessons learned or after-action reviews from state and local emergency officials who have used the system for medium to large scale events for review;
  • A help desk-style facility either at the federal or state level (see Box 4.1 for an example of similar practice);
  • Public education campaigns to increase general understanding of alerting systems;
  • Inclusion of private companies in the development of the framework and to encourage ongoing dialogue to explore mutual opportunities for the safety of shared constituents; and
Suggested Citation:"4 Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24935.
×
  • Periodic assessments of utility and function, examining new opportunities and technologies. Opportunities are needed to gather researchers to share insights among themselves and with those responsible for defining, building, and operating alerting systems.

Additional understanding on how new systems are integrated and adopted by local emergency management will be important if a truly integrated alert and warning ecosystem is going to be successful. For example, what is the mission and strategic plan for the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, or any new alerting system? Does FEMA just enact what the FCC decides or is there a way to continuously modify and update the system? Whose responsibility is that? Should FEMA expand the office and have an operational section and administrative side of WEA/IPAWs? Are there additional roles that NEMA, the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM), and other public safety groups could play?

EVER CHANGING TECHNOLOGY

Technology and communications tools used by the public are quite dynamic. The technology itself evolves quickly, and with a growing smartphone application market, the applications used by individuals can quickly change. Alert and warning systems must evolve to make use of these new technologies. This supports the need for a flexible, integrated system.

However, adding to this challenge is that old and new technologies coexist for long periods of time and technologies come in and out of favor. A primary example is broadcast over-the-air television. Although usage of over-the-air television1 began to decline as cable was adopted, use as shown a slight increase as “cord-cutters” rely more heavily on streaming services.2 As individuals may still rely on over-the-air television, we must continue to ensure that those individuals receive alerts and warnings. These technology use differences may align with age differences; for example, digital media and streaming services account for 51 percent of

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1 A significant amount of work is being done in the United States on the next-generation broadcast television standard, ATSC 3.0. Although the long-term technical and economic viability of ATSC 3.0 is far from certain, it has technical capabilities that could be extremely important to emergency alerting and warning. For more information, see the Advanced Warning and Response Network (AWARN) website at http://awarn.org.

2 The Nielsen Company, “The Nielsen Total Audience Report: Q2 2016,” release date September 26, 2016, http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports/2016/the-nielsen-total-audience-report-q2-2016.html.

Suggested Citation:"4 Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24935.
×

total average audience for those 18 to 34 years of age.3 This difference in media choices adds to the complication of reaching differing age populations. While the committee is excited about the possibility of increasingly context-aware alerts and warnings, where the decisions on what type of information to share are made on an end-user device, one must also consider how to most effectively alert individuals who use less advanced cellular handsets, rely on radio broadcasts, or use NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards4 to get information. Furthermore, both the technology of emergency alerts and citizens’ capacity to comprehend the alerts and use messaging functions interactively changes very rapidly. The interaction between the developing technologies and citizens’ capacity to use these technologies effectively on a community scale is itself an issue for future research.

COUPLING RESEARCH WITH EMERGENCY MANAGERS AND THE PRIVATE SECTOR

Public response to alerts is both a social science phenomenon (their goal is to change public behavior) and a technical phenomenon (technology is required for their dissemination). It is also an activity closely coupled to the practice of emergency management, which takes place primarily at the state and local level in the United States. Yet technologists (including a wide set of subdisciplines such as human–computer interaction, computer networking, or wireless communications), social science researchers, and emergency managers have had few opportunities for ongoing interactions to consider current knowledge or gaps in our understanding, as well as to collaborate on beginning to fill those gaps. Opportunities and funding are needed for these stakeholders to interact to share their knowledge and experiences and to forge new partnerships.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) currently hosts quarterly IPAWS conference calls for emergency managers, which could be expanded to include other stakeholders. Additional research brownbag presentations could be hosted online for researchers and emergency managers to interact. In-person interactions need to be a priority at regularly occurring meetings, such as the International Association of Emergency Managers annual conference and other organized meetings of emergency management. Finally, future funding for WEA research should

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3 The Nielsen Company, “The Digital Age, Young Adults Gravitate Toward Digital Devices,” release date October 10, 2016, http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2016/the-digital-age-young-adults-gravitate-toward-digital-devices.html.

4 This text was modified after prepublication.

Suggested Citation:"4 Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24935.
×

prioritize integrated teams of technologists, social science researchers, and emergency managers.

INCENTIVES TO PARTICIPATE

An alert and warning ecosystem incorporates numerous official sources of information as well as numerous other information providers, such as social media companies, navigation companies, local media, and hardware makers. For example, WEA relies on cellular service providers to implement the necessary capabilities in their infrastructure and for vendors to include the necessary software in smartphones. (Although participation is voluntary, all major carriers currently participate.) Incorporating these various pieces, and ensuring that information about how the system is working is shared, will be an increasing challenge. How do we encourage openness among stakeholders and encourage participation by those who operate other valuable computer and communications capabilities?

As noted in the previous chapter, feedback on how individuals react to alerts and warnings as they receive them is invaluable to disaster researchers, and companies that might be able to gather this information, like Facebook, Google, or service providers, will need to share this information. Additionally, as private organizations develop their own alert and warning systems, it is essential that they reach out to researchers who have key knowledge on public response, so that lessons learned can be applied (and not rediscovered).

LIMITS IN FORECASTING

Alerting and warnings for naturally occurring events depend on reliably predicting natural phenomenon. Most of the agencies that distribute the messages at the state, local, regional, or federal level rely on the 24-7 coverage of the National Weather Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and many of the numerous Meso-nets that provide environmental data of all sorts, including weather, earthquakes, and air quality. These agencies must continue to have the resources necessary to provide these vital services that millions of people rely upon. Freely available, high-quality, high-density environmental observations sponsored by the government keep communities, families, and agencies up-to-the-minute with local conditions. The reliance on the public, regular, accurate data for preparedness cannot be overstated. These public networks provide the basis for numerous private networks and will continue to be important even as people use private networks to receive information.

Suggested Citation:"4 Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24935.
×

* * *

The continued evolution of alerting systems—and our understanding of the way in which the public uses and responds to these systems—will be essential as an increasing list of disasters and crises happen, both natural and humanmade. Addressing the research enumerated in the previous chapter and careful consideration of the challenges above could be a primary focus of current efforts within the federal agencies that play a role in emergency response, specifically DHS, FCC, and FEMA.

Suggested Citation:"4 Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24935.
×

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Suggested Citation:"4 Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24935.
×
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Suggested Citation:"4 Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24935.
×
Page 75
Suggested Citation:"4 Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24935.
×
Page 76
Suggested Citation:"4 Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24935.
×
Page 77
Suggested Citation:"4 Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24935.
×
Page 78
Suggested Citation:"4 Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24935.
×
Page 79
Suggested Citation:"4 Challenges to Building Better Alerting Systems." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24935.
×
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Following a series of natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, that revealed shortcomings in the nation’s ability to effectively alert populations at risk, Congress passed the Warning, Alert, and Response Network (WARN) Act in 2006. Today, new technologies such as smart phones and social media platforms offer new ways to communicate with the public, and the information ecosystem is much broader, including additional official channels, such as government social media accounts, opt-in short message service (SMS)-based alerting systems, and reverse 911 systems; less official channels, such as main stream media outlets and weather applications on connected devices; and unofficial channels, such as first person reports via social media. Traditional media have also taken advantage of these new tools, including their own mobile applications to extend their reach of beyond broadcast radio, television, and cable. Furthermore, private companies have begun to take advantage of the large amounts of data about users they possess to detect events and provide alerts and warnings and other hazard-related information to their users.

More than 60 years of research on the public response to alerts and warnings has yielded many insights about how people respond to information that they are at risk and the circumstances under which they are most likely to take appropriate protective action. Some, but not all, of these results have been used to inform the design and operation of alert and warning systems, and new insights continue to emerge. Emergency Alert and Warning Systems reviews the results of past research, considers new possibilities for realizing more effective alert and warning systems, explores how a more effective national alert and warning system might be created and some of the gaps in our present knowledge, and sets forth a research agenda to advance the nation’s alert and warning capabilities.

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