Wildfires offer gut check on your emergency communications strategy

by American City & County Contributor
Mar 20, 2018

By Daniel Graff-Radford

The wildfires that recently swept through California presented county officials and law enforcement with a set of incredibly complex and in some cases unprecedented challenges. The fires reached densely populated urban areas, damaged cell towers and inhibited communications. To make matters worse, the overwhelming majority of residents in some counties had not yet opted in to receive early warning alerts.

State and local officials across the country who followed the devastating California wildfires might be asking themselves: if a wildfire - or any natural or man-made disaster - occurs, do I have an emergency communications strategy and system in place to protect people and property?

In an effort to ensure citizen safety and security, states, counties and cities continue to launch emergency mass notification and alert systems. But ensuring success with these systems not only requires selecting the right technology and tools, but putting in place a strategy for citizen registration and engagement for when severe weather, active shooter, transportation issues and other natural and manmade disasters strike.

The adoption of emergency mass notification systems (EMNS) can be restricted by limited citizen awareness that most systems (phone, email, push notifications or SMS alerts) require individuals to opt in on their mobile phones or register through an online registration page. 

For local officials and law enforcement agencies seeking to better prepare for and manage communications during wildfires and other emergencies through the use of EMNS, consider these 5 strategies.

Establish jurisdictional and functional authority
Prior to an EMNS launch, localities must first identify jurisdictional and functional authority to access and use the information collected from the solutions and citizens. In an era where the security and privacy of a resident’s personal information is paramount, Leaders must meet to define authorities regarding use of the systems, and review legal boundaries such as Personally Identifiable Information (PII), HIPAA and requirements for encryptions.

Educate residents to remove uncertainties
Too often localities launch emergency mass notification systems without first educating citizens on its benefits, how the system works, and how their information will be protected (i.e. - that it won’t be shared with third parties for marketing purposes). The more uncertainty that exists, the less likely residents will be to register for the system and actually use it.

Make it simple for residents by heavily and consistently promoting the EMNS as an outbound system - including how and where to register. Outside of an actual emergency event that drives awareness, the most significant opportunity to drive mass registration is at the program launch when you can benefit from media attention and the “newness” of the program.

Localize the program
Branding matters - even for something as critical as emergency mass notification systems. Generic branding that doesn’t speak directly to local residents can lead to the impression that the system is not built around their city, county or state. Localize the system through custom branding, like “Alert Boston” and provide links on how and where to opt in to the program through any associate government websites.

Avoid common pitfalls
As mentioned, a lack of program awareness or belief that it is critical to their safety and well-being are the primary reasons for poor resident registration and engagement. Other factors that can undermine your EMNS are improper user training, or no training at all, that leads to  less engagement or improper usage.

At the same time, if residents are getting multiple or conflicting alerts from different jurisdictions, it can lead to confusion or “alert fatigue” which causes them to begin tuning out the alerts as it is unclear which alerts apply to them or should be taken seriously.

Promote capabilities that drive engagement
Innovative, two-way notification capabilities through EMNS can drive citizen engagement by empowering them to relay critical information back to agency decision makers, targeting messages to specific areas through geolocation, reaching increasingly mobile residents who do not have landline phones, and tailoring communication based on resident’s preferred delivery channel.

Wildfires and other weather disasters cannot be prevented; but with proper emergency communications tools and strategies in place, loss of life and property can be minimized. 


Daniel Graff-Radford is the chief product officer of OnSolve, a global provider of cloud-based communication and collaboration tools that deliver critical information.

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