Best Practices for Public Alerting

posted: Tuesday, Feb 13, 2018

On January 13 one Hawaiian state employee sent out an emergency alert to the entire state, warning residents of an incoming missile strike. There was initial panic over the message, and it was almost 45 minutes before a follow-up message was sent out to the public letting them know all was well. Mistakes like this can be avoided with the right software, proper training, and well-defined processes. And if employees are prepared in advance they can quickly respond if a mistake is made. Here are a few important best practices that can help emergency personnel avoid a Hawaii-like incident:

1. Make emergency notifications a multi-person process: If only one individual oversees an emergency alert system, the odds of a false report increase dramatically. To avoid mistakes, ensure there is a review and approval procedure involving at least two people before any action is taken.

2. Treat every practice scenario like the real thing: It’s tempting to become complacent during training exercises or practices that involve emergency alerting procedures. Thinking of tests or practice as a mundane requirement defeats the purpose of a drill. Exercises that involve sending out practice alerts to the public–potentially millions of people–should follow the same procedures as a real alert and include verification, review and approval steps.

3. Train the right people, and train them well: Those who operate this system must be extremely conscientious of their actions while paying close attention to detail. These same individuals should understand all IPAWS components, must be trained by FEMA how to operate IPAWS, and should be well-versed in how to use the alert-origination provider software. If members become certified in IPAWS, they will understand how the alerting software and IPAWS systems work together, and that understanding will, in turn, help to safeguard against mistakes and errors.

4. Plan for mistakes: Communication planning not only includes plans for what messages to send and who to send them to in various situations, it also includes plans for what happens if a message is sent by mistake. Hawaiian EMAA officials took 38 minutes to send out a follow-up message because nobody knew exactly what procedure to follow in the case of a false report. Those long, agonizing moments of fear and uncertainty could have been avoided if there was a clear actionable process for team members to follow. Communication plans should include the procedures to follow in the case of a false alarm. The simplest way to retract a message is to use the same starting point as the original message and modify the message content itself. Training material includes instructions for canceling and retracting alerts, and users should plan be aware of these materials.

5. Train to the templates and keep templates organized: The creation of templates is the responsibility of any alerting team and are of primary importance in creating easily repeatable communication plans. Templates should remain flexible and meet the needs of different alerting situations, whether they are real emergencies or practice drills. Templates should also be clearly labeled and organized, and all team members should be trained on how to fill them out and in what context to use them. To help avoid template misuse, team members should have their templates verified with other operators before any alert is sent (as suggested in best practices #1).

6. Maintain a strong relationship with the alert origination provider: Alert origination providers like AlertSense offer 247 customer support and are available to help in all situations. Get to know these support teams and use them for regular training and assistance on the use of live alerts and practice drills.

The best alerting teams are constantly looking for ways to improve their process, are thoroughly trained, understand the process and are well-versed in the use of templates. Each of these best practices, when used together, make for stronger teams that keep the public safe…the ultimate goal of any alerting team.

More information on training and best practices in the time of an emergency can be found on FEMA’s website.