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Disaster Zone: Public Warning Systems

Every jurisdiction or organization has a requirement to warn the public of hazards or risks that are threatening people or property. There are a variety of options for doing this. The key is to be sure and issue warnings via as many avenues as possible.

This blog post will provide a brief overview of a variety of hazard warning systems available to local governments, and it’s my strong belief that to successfully reach as many people in your jurisdiction as possible, you will need to employ more than one of the systems described below.

Emergency Broadcast and Alert Systems

Thirty years ago, the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) was the only technological tool available to emergency managers, which allowed a federal, local, or state agency to send an electronic alert to the entire population within their jurisdiction. The EBS was replaced in 1997 by the Emergency Alert System (EAS), which is still a warning system and is now used extensively by the National Weather Service (NWS) to issue severe weather warnings, in addition to being available to other agencies. The last EAS-related innovation added was the addition of Amber Alerts for missing children.

EAS alerts can only be issued by organizations that have a piece of equipment called an ENDEC. Here in Washington State, ENDECs are likely to be found at county-level emergency management offices, the Warning Center at the Washington State Emergency Management Division, the National Weather Service, and other outlier organizations.  

When EAS was fielded it had the promise of being able to turn on televisions and radios, even when they were not turned on, so that people could be alerted. That promise is not one that I’m aware of being fulfilled. However, EAS messages are linked with Weather Radios — readily available radios that any individual can purchase and own. The Weather Radio can sit quietly in a bedroom or office and only turn on when a warning is issued. Crucially, these radios can be programmed for specific location warnings and can be purchased for “less than the cost of a pair of shoes.” 

Commercial Alerting Systems 

Commercially there are now a number of mass alerting systems available. Many, but not all counties and cities have opted to have one of these commercial systems. They became popular after the 2007 mass shooting incident at Virginia Tech led to an explosion of commercial mass notification systems. At one time, there were over 100 of these commercial offerings available. Over time, these have consolidated to be many fewer.

It appears to me that this commercial offering of services has become a preferred option for many emergency management organizations. The limitation is that residents must “opt in” to receive these notifications. Thus, there might be thousands of subscribers to the system, but in reality, it equates, in most cases, to a very small percentage of actual residents who have taken the step to be notified. 

Wireless Emergency Alerts 

Which leads us to the latest innovation in alerting: the nationally available Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), a system that became operational in 2012. It allows for the issuing agency to specify a geographic area to receive the alert. A significant limitation is that there is a maximum of 90 characters available for formatting a message. The advantage of this system is that people do not have to “opt in” to get these alerts, meaning that visitors who don’t live in the area where an alert is being issued would also be notified. Each wireless carrier may use different technologies to make the system work on their devices. Again, only selected government entities can issue these warnings and these agencies must have applied to do so.

Door-to-Door Alerts

Lastly, as we have read about and seen in the news with regards to recent wildfires, a jurisdiction can have fire and police going to each house located in a threatened area to alert residents living there to evacuate. This should be the absolutely last resort. It may feel good to hear about first responders going door-to-door risking their lives to alert people of a hazard, wildfire, dam break, levee failure, etc, but, because this is the 21st century and there are many options available to warn residents, local governments should apply as many tools available as they can to ensure the health and safety of all, including first responders .

Check with your organization’s internal operational-level staff to find out what tools are available that issue notifications and warnings to people and businesses located in your jurisdiction. Your communities are counting on you to let them know when there is a problem that might impact their personal and economic welfare.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Eric Holdeman

Eric is a nationally known emergency manager and consultant. He has 28 years of emergency management experience, having served at the federal, state (Washington), and local government (King County) level, as well as in the nonprofit sector. He is the Principal for Eric Holdeman and Associates and serves the Director for the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience, which is part of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER).

He is a prolific writer, authoring numerous articles for professional journals and opinion pieces for local, regional and national newspapers including the Washington Post. He is a Senior Fellow and contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine, where he blogs about emergency management and homeland security at Eric also hosts the Disaster Zone podcast.

Eric is writing as a guest author. The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.