On June 25th, Genasys, The Critical Communications Company, hosted its second Public Warning Systems (PWS) webinar. On this occasion, the session was focused on strategies to achieve a successful PWS implementation
We were honored to host two well recognized panelists: Benoit Vivier, responsible for EENA (European Emergency Number Association) public affairs and Michael Hallowes, Senior Advisor for Zefonar and former National Director of Australia’s Emergency Alert Program. Mr. Vivier has a key role in EENA’s activities in the EU Parliament, promoting emergency management technology and applications. Mr. Hallowes has broad and deep experience creating and managing these systems and their operative factors. With the support of our moderator, Pablo Gomez, our speakers presented interesting ideas regarding the importance of public warning systems, and had an engaging discussion while answering questions from attendees.
Mr. Vivier opened the discussion by reviewing the development of public warning systems and how they have been used to alert populations of emergencies over the years. Currently, location based mobile phone alerts are considered to be the most efficient and effective way to alert people during a crisis.
However, as discussed during the webinar, location based phone alerts should not be the only option as each emergency requires different combinations of critical communications tools.
Mr. Vivier shared the example of emails being used to explain quarantine regulations in Belgium when first imposed. The decision behind using email was that it was not something that needed immediate dispersion and authorities were concerned that a mobile alert could cause panic.
Other communication tools available for public warning include social media, TV, radio, digital signage and, in some countries, ATMs. Social media can be useful to combat disinformation since this is where it is most commonly found. Authorities can see what is trending and ensure factual information is disseminated. TV and radio are good methods to distribute comprehensive official information. ATMs are not a popular communication tool, but they are used in the Netherlands for sending Amber Alerts for missing children. Digital signage is often seen on highways and could display current and relevant information on wildfires, upcoming roadblocks and official notifications to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through these various examples, Mr. Vivier highlighted that there is no “one size fits all”. Different tools present distinct advantages and disadvantages, making them more effective in changing scenarios. The best course of action for authorities is to implement various communication tools to ensure as many people as possible receive the information they need to stay safe. In some instances, it can be the difference between life and death for at-risk populations.
However, even with the most advanced technology, public warning systems require informed planning and strategizing to be used to their fullest potential.
“Public warning is not about the authorities communicating, it’s about the public receiving information, and that information should be clear and easy to understand. Authorities should consider what they really want from the people who will receive it.” – Benoit Viver
It is important that authorities plan the content, method, timing and channel dissemination of public warnings. These factors are dependent on the nature, size and location of the crisis. Emergency alerts must be clear and easy to understand and the proper channels used to sent the alerts. Authorities must also consider whether to send an “all clear” message after the situation has normalized , whether to send alerts only to the affected area or to include surrounding areas. Planning and strategizing the use of public warning systems is essential to minimize confusion and saves lives.
Mr. Hallowes described how the Australian Government responded after severe bushfires in 2009 burned through Victoria causing the deaths of 173 people. In the aftermath of this horrific tragedy, there was a national outcry that the government had failed to adequately warn the public of the impending danger. The government went to work on creating a public warning system that would “get it right the first time so we leave no one behind in a crisis”.
After studying the issue, the Australian Government came to the conclusion that reaching most people was far more achievable than reaching everyone with any single solution. Mr. Hallowes was tasked by the government with implementing a national location-based SMS public warning system that would reach over 95% of the population. After taking a year to complete, the system successfully met the following standards: the government’s legal duty to warn the public, communities’ public safety warning expectations, and authorities’ operational and functional system requirements. Mr. Hallowes said that since the system’s implementation, there has been no loss of life in Australia due to a failure of warning people on time. However, even with an application like VIC EMERGENCY, it is hard to ensure everyone downloads the application, which is why Australia’s national emergency warning system does not require an opt-in.
Mr. Hallowes also highlighted the importance of planning the timely and strategic usage of emergency alerts. He provided the example of a mobile alert overriding cell phone filters and blocks to ensure at-risk populations receive alerts and instructions. However, in an active shooter situation, audible alerts might give away a person’s location and put them in harm’s way. Authorities must be prepared for the variable nature of each crisis.
Mr. Hallowes also detailed how location based SMS systems have the ability send alerts to all cell phones in specific areas through geofencing. Mr. Hallowes described a building evacuation SMS test using a geofence that identified and delivered a test message to all 5,107 cell phone numbers in the building. It took less than ten seconds to reach 97% of the people in the building with specific evacuation instructions. The remaining 3% were using landlines.
Using multiple communication systems provides authorities options in delivering warnings to keep people safe and save lives during critical events. Mr. Hallowes gave various examples where the loss of life could have been avoided had authorities used SMS, Cell Broadcast and other modern public warning systems. Mr. Hallowes echoed Mr. Vivier stating that implementing various emergency communication channels is more effective than relying on a single method.
Mr. Hallowes has found that beyond delivering emergency alerts, public warning systems are also useful during every stage of the emergency lifecycle.
Multi-channel public warning systems foster more adaptable planning for various emergencies and contingencies, far more effective public safety alerting, and provide vital data for authorities and decision makers. From initial warnings through “all clear” alerts, modern public warning systems deliver the information that people need to make informed decisions about their safety. In the aftermath of a crisis, these systems retain data for authorities to review and learn how to better respond during subsequent critical events.
During the question-and-answer portion of the webinar, Mr. Hallowes and Mr. Vivier discussed how public warning systems have played an important role in many governments’ COVID-19 responses. Mr. Vivier pointed out that COVID-19 has raised awareness of the importance of public warning systems and made updating older systems a greater priority. Mr. Hallowes said that if more countries implemented national location based SMS, they would be able to monitor mobile phone movement and other depersonalized data to more effectively track and trace COVID-19 cases to decrease the spread of the virus and get the world back on track.
As public awareness of modern emergency warning systems spreads, more people expect their local, regional and national governments to be more proactive in warning of imminent danger and public safety threats. While many are concerned with privacy, most agree that safety is the priority. Even in the midst of a pandemic, public warning is not a commonly discussed topic among the general populace. As Mr. Vivier stated, “It’s not really something people ask for until they are confronted with a disaster.” Government leaders need to be proactive and prepared before the next inevitable crisis occurs.
The new prioritization of public warning systems is an important step forward for public safety and bodes well for the European Union’s legislation (Article 110), which will make location based warning systems mandatory for all EU member states. With all the new information available, there is a great opportunity to produce a highly effective public warning system incorporating the industry experience acquired by experts, including Mr. Hallowes and Mr Vivier as presented in this webinar.
Stay up to date with future Genasys webinars as we bring you the latest information on the critical communications market. For those interested in experiencing the complete June 25th webinar, please click HERE.