ICMA Publications / PM Magazine / March 2014

Communicating Emergency Information on a Budget

Expand capabilities with no- or low-cost alternatives

by Joshua Kelly and Shahrzad Rizvi

Over the past few years, there has been an incredible amount of new software options available to local emergency managers. For a price, options like automated warning systems, preformatted social media updating applications, and integrated database management programs can greatly expand the capabilities of local emergency managers.

Faced with limited budgets, it is not uncommon for local officials in such high-hazard communities as those in Tornado Alley—primarily the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska—to have to decide between building or maintaining a traditional siren network or purchasing an expensive, privately operated, automated call system.

There really is no choice to be made. If you know where to look, there are a host of state-of-the-art software systems available at little or no cost. Local officials should seriously explore the options before committing any resources to expensive prepackaged communication programs that may or may not be as effective.

What’s Out There

Here are some of the options to consider:

Low-cost alert systems. Such new “cloud telephony” providers as Tropo and Twilio allow you to directly broadcast phone and text messages to your community. The same technology that allows broadcasting messages also allows managers to collect reports of incidents via voice calls, short message service (SMS) messages, or websites.

You can have a reliable alert system for a much lower cost than those currently available by using one of these providers in conjunction with free open-source software that has been customized through a “civic software event.” Often called hackathons, these events bring together software developers who are ready, willing, and able to commit their technical expertise to civic endeavors for free.

Open source software is just as secure and effective as proprietary software offered by contracted vendors. The wildly popular Mozilla Firefox web browser and the Android mobile software are two common examples of open source software that is both functional and secure.

Social media. Social media platforms have evolved into much more than just personal sharing mechanisms. Their strengths are now in aggregating conversations about community events.

To increase an emergency team’s situational awareness, various social media aggregators,1 which are services that collect content from such multiple social networks as Facebook and Twitter, are available to quickly make sense of the information that funnels into an emergency operations center during a crisis. Managers will increasingly need to include the new media information sources, along with traditional media sources like the local television news.

Twitter responded to this need by launching Twitter Alerts2 in September 2013. Twitter launched this notification feature in order to “help users get important and accurate information from credible organizations during emergencies, natural disasters, or moments when other communications services aren’t accessible.”3 Services like Twitter Alerts are not intended to replace emergency notification services but to serve as a concurrent and complementary method of conveying urgent messages.

Over the next few years, adding a digital media dashboard next to traditional media sources in an emergency operations center may very well become a necessity. Also, by bringing these “digital volunteers” into the fold, emergency managers can more effectively spread useful, accurate, and timely messages to residents through real-time social media monitoring while primary staff members are tied up in an event.

Freeware mapping. The potential for the use of freeware mapping in public safety situations became clear following 20 inches of snow in Washington, D.C., in February 2010. Frustrated with the perceived lack of action from first responders, residents created a website (http://www.snowmageddoncleanup.com) where anyone could post a need—a snowed-in driveway, for example—and connect with local volunteers looking to help.

Since 2010, development of such freeware mapping platforms as the one used during Snowmageddon have multiplied exponentially (i.e., Google Crisis4 Map, Google Maps Lite,5 Ushahidi,6 and others). Emergency managers should embrace this kind of software to do things like disseminate shelter locations before an event, connect with resident needs during an emergency, and more effectively communicate real-time recovery progress following a disaster.7,8

Collaborations. “During a disaster is not the time to exchange business cards” is a quote repeated in public safety circles. The same principle applies to preparedness capabilities. Why spend staff time, resources, and know-how on duplicating a service that is already being offered at a higher level than can be achieved with a start-up project.

Federal, regional, and even private sector partners are increasingly providing no-to-low cost customizable severe weather warnings, real-time information distribution networks, and free mapping services. To reap the benefits of these highly capable organizations, however, you need to know how to quickly communicate your data and where to look before a disaster strikes.

Going Forward

Technology will continue to drive innovation in the way local governments communicate public safety issues to their residents. While these advances are transforming the way we are able to convey things like weather warnings, recovery services, and even the location of displaced friends and family members, they should not be considered pay-to-play benefits.

So when developing your next public safety budget, keep in mind that even the smallest communities, with a little creative planning, can communicate with their residents, in new ways, at little to no cost.

Kelly, Joshua - Tech Touch

Joshua Kelly

Management analyst
Mesquite, Texas
Rizvi, Shahrzad - Tech Touch

Shahrzad Rizvi

Management analyst
Dallas, Texas

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