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Harnessing technology to speed emergency information

By Houston Thomas, Special to Homeland1.com
CDW-G public safety business development manager

Imagine waking up on a Saturday morning with clear skies and perfect weather. Suddenly, your local emergency siren goes off. With no further information, you find that you have only 10 minutes to collect your most precious belongings and important documents and evacuate your home. In a situation such as this, time is the difference between safety and peril. The difference between four minutes and four hours is vast – and can vastly impact the outcome of a potentially tragic situation.

Traditional methods of mass notification, such as sirens, television, and radio, only provide critical information to citizens in a timely matter if citizens tune in. And even then, things like power outages sometimes make these methods unavailable. Yet, surprisingly, the majority of citizens still rely heavily on these communications during emergency situations.

To determine if state and local governments relay emergency information to their citizens effectively, CDW Government, Inc. (CDW-G) conducted a survey of 1,448 Americans living in the top 20 metropolitan areas across the country. The survey identified two critical disconnects: Many governments are not using modern communications tools, such as e-mail and text messaging, to reach Americans during emergencies, and many Americans are simply unaware of the emergency notification programs used by their local governments.


New technologies = faster notification
Americans’ media consumption habits have changed dramatically in recent years. We watch less television, are more mobile and, especially within younger demographics, we are increasingly reliant on cell phones and text messaging. The rapid adoption of advanced communications technologies means citizens have near-instant access to information about everything from traffic to weather to movie times and locations, all at the click of a button. The question is, “Are governments using these new technology tools to accelerate and improve the delivery of emergency information?”

Not surprisingly, CDW-G's national survey found that residents of states that suffer frequent major storms are most likely to use text messaging in an emergency. In Florida, for example, 56 percent of survey participants age 29 and under said they used text messaging to communicate in an emergency. These cities, frequently in harms way, lead by example; many others have room for improvement.

Despite the fact that wireless subscription and text messaging use are at all time highs, emergency notification capabilities are not keeping up with advances in technology. Even though Americans sent more than 28 billon text messages in June 2007 alone, just 4 percent of citizens rely on text messages, e-mail, or government Web sites for emergency notification information.

While television and radio will always play a valuable role in communicating essential information to the public, both require citizens to know that there is an emergency and then tune in. Television, especially, also requires an electrical power source, which may be out in the event of a major storm. Text messaging, on the other hand, delivers information to Americans anytime, anyplace. It does not require electricity or even citizen awareness.


A call to action
In a crisis situation, governments need to disseminate information to large populations as quickly as possible. Actionable information needs to be ubiquitous. State and local agencies should evaluate existing emergency notification systems to determine if they are reaching citizens with accurate information within an acceptable timeframe. Additionally, state and local agencies need to recognize citizens’ changing media consumption habits and explore the benefits of advanced technology, such as mass text and e-mail messaging. Their Continuity of Operation (COOP) strategies should include the means to “push” targeted information to constituents, with or without regard to someone’s location.

For their own safety, Americans need to learn about and sign up for existing emergency notification programs. Many large cities and metropolitan areas, from New York to Washington, D.C., to Miami, have developed or are building robust notification programs that include e-mail and text messaging delivery of emergency alerts. But CDW-G’s research found that two-thirds of Americans don’t know if their city has a modern emergency alert notification system in place. It is imperative that citizens are aware of their local government emergency notification systems, how they work, and how they can sign up. Many cities are spreading the word through community events, Web sites, and public service announcements. These efforts must continue unabated. At the same time, citizens need to proactively seek out information about their local emergency alert systems.


In today's threat environment, where time is of the essence, local governments and businesses are working to deliver critical information faster than ever before. By harnessing new communication technologies such as text messaging, local governments have the ability to reach citizens right away with critical emergency information – wherever they are.

About Houston Thomas
Houston Thomas serves as the lead public safety business development manager for CDW Government, Inc. (CDW-G), a leading provider of technology solutions for Federal, state and local government agencies, as well as educational institutions at all levels. With close to three decades of experience delivering technology solutions to governments and educators, Thomas has spent the last seven years dedicated to the public safety arena and first responders. In addition to his technology expertise, Thomas is a disaster recovery volunteer and was closely involved in a number of domestic response operations, including the regional response to Hurricane Katrina, as well as the last four hurricanes within the state of Florida. Thomas is also the developer of the OpCom rolling laboratory at CDW-G.

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