Opening the Flood Gates–Of Communication

When I was a child, radio stations still conducted Emergency Broadcast System tests by broadcasting loud, annoying alarms. after a half minute or so of beeps, a voice would intone, “This is a test. This is only a test. In the event of an actual emergency….”

Back then it was pretty simple. Near-instantaneous warnings could be sent by radio, television, a local siren, or loudspeakers on emergency vehicles. Unless the danger area was geographically small, only the first two were effective.

Today there are innumerable ways to notify people in an emergency. Computers and mobile communication devices have each added multiple channels, and there is some overlap–e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging, and several online social networks. Old-fashioned telephones have gone mobile and technology makes it possible for emergency managers to broadcast recorded notifications to phone numbers that have subscribed to their service. (These are sometimes called “Reverse 911,” although that’s actually a trademarked company name. There are other services that work similarly.)

Very soon after I signed up for a Twitter account, I participated in a “Tweet chat” about the use of social media in emergencies. In the eight weeks I’ve been on Twitter, I’ve first learned of five emergencies via the site: a gunman at the Discovery Channel headquarters; an earthquake in New Zealand; an explosion in California; and two wildfires, in Colorado and Utah. Just recently several agencies conducted a drill via Twitter and Facebook. The tweets, tagged #X24 (Exercise 24) and bearing the warning “TEST. NOT REAL” reminded me of those old radio tests.

It’s all got me thinking about the best way to warn people in the event of an emergency, and I’ve decided there is no best way. Or, rather, that the best way is every possible way. This is especially true when an actual emergency has occurred; telephone lines may be down, cell towers damaged, electricity out. Both emergency managers and residents should consider in advance what alternate information sources and communication methods might be available.

Imagine an actual or potential emergency. Think about where everyone in the warning area might be and what they might be doing. How would you make sure the greatest number of people see the warning right now? Radio, television, e-mail, text message, telephone, Facebook, Twitter…. and still more niche online networks, depending in part on where the emergency (and therefore the target audience) is. Those should reach the majority of the intended recipients, and they can be encouraged to forward messages to others, especially by phone, text and e-mail.

Any smart marketing professional will tell you that the best way to market a company or product is through an integrated campaign using multiple media channels. The same applies to notifying people about an imminent emergency.

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