Current Use of Text Messages for Alerts and Warnings: Experiences and Lessons Learned
Many communities, universities, and other organizations have deployed text alerting systems using short message service (SMS) and/or e-mail to supplement other avenues for conveying alerting messages to the public. Many of the lessons learned from these systems may be applicable to the Commercial Mobile Alert Service (CMAS) program, although CMAS will have some distinct features not found in the other systems: (1) CMAS will use cellular broadcast rather than SMS or e-mail, (2) all cellular subscribers of participating carriers who use CMAS-compliant telephones will receive alerts unless they opt out, and (3) CMAS will use the cellular network to target messages geographically based on the actual location of the recipient.
The District of Columbia established a text alerting system, DC Alerts, to deal not only with typical severe-weather warnings but also with road closings and other security measures that are frequently in force in the nation’s capital. Considerable effort was made in planning for the service’s rollout—an effort that included in-depth training, exercises, and pilots, and the involvement of community organizations for obtaining initial and ongoing feedback.
Exemplifying another emergency notification system—in the wake of the crisis that occurred on the campus of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) on April 16, 2007, when a student opened fire, the establishment by Virginia Tech of a robust emergency notification system became a high priority. Indeed, spurred by this incident and as mandated by the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008—
which requires the immediate notification to campus communities upon confirmation of significant emergencies or dangerous situations1—alerting systems have been instituted at colleges and universities nationwide. The Virginia Tech Emergency Notification System (ENS) delivers text messages by way of SMS and e-mail and delivers voice messages by way of cellular and landline telephones. It also provides information on a Web site.2
In the workshop session on the current use of text messages for alerts and warnings, Barbara Childs-Pair, BDR, Inc. (and former director of the D.C. Emergency Management Agency), gave a presentation on lessons learned during the rollout of the District of Columbia’s alerting system, and Michael Mulhare, Virginia Tech, discussed Virginia Tech’s experience with its campus alerting system. Darrell Darnell, White House Office for Critical Infrastructure Protection and Resilience Policy and Strategy, served as the session moderator. The sections that follow provide an integrated summary of these presentations and the discussions that followed, organized by topic. They draw on the Virginia Tech and District of Columbia examples to examine design, implementation, messaging, and operational aspects of alerting systems as they relate to the public response.
Virginia Tech’s system is opt-out—that is, employees are automatically enrolled, and students are enrolled when they register for classes unless they actively opt out of the system. Registrants can also provide up to three different telephone numbers at which they may be contacted. The system has approximately 55,000 subscribers, or about 85 percent of the student, faculty, and staff population.
DC Alerts is an opt-in system, with registration offered through a Web site. The system allows registrants to choose what types of alerts they want to receive—those involving severe weather, transportation disruptions, interruptions of utility services, government or school closings, AMBER Alerts, or other breaking news and information—and to limit alerts according to the time of day or neighborhood in which situations occur. Registrants can also sign up to see information for particular communities and districts regarding crime. (During registration, users can also ask to receive messages in Spanish.)
Characteristically for this system, DC Alerts registration can spike before major events. For example, in December 2008, the month before the presidential inauguration, there had been 30,000 subscribers; but just
prior to the inauguration, on January 14, 2009, there were about 70,000 subscribers. Within a month that number dropped to 40,000, only to start climbing again as the Cherry Blossom Festival approached in the spring.
Two educational issues related to subscription were noted as being important to communicate to the public. First, events can occur at any time, and alert services are important all the time, not just during large events. Second, it is important for individuals to subscribe to an appropriate set of alerts to ensure that they receive messages that are important for them to have but avoid receiving messages that they do not need. During registration for the alerts, people often sign up for all possible categories, but it is possible to tailor one’s registration for alerts to meet individual needs. For example, a person who commutes into the District of Columbia but lives in Virginia might want to register for severe-weather alerts only during work hours, which the system allows.
Subscription management is a challenge in both opt-in and opt-out systems. For example, in addition to delivering messages to people’s contact telephone numbers, Virginia Tech also delivers alerts to an employee’s or a student’s university-issued e-mail address. This provides for a redundant communications channel that helps ensure message receipt if the student or staff member is away from the telephone or has failed to keep their registered telephone number current.
A related issue is the ability to remove inactive names from the system, which both reduces the load on the system and prevents people from receiving alerts that no longer apply to them. At Virginia Tech, anyone not associated with the university for two consecutive semesters is automatically removed from the system. In the District of Columbia, the frequency of events encourages registrants to keep their information updated. However, the DC Alerts system also has numerous registrants who no longer live in the area—for example, interns or contractors who may reside in the city only for a short period of time often fail to remove their names from the system.
Virginia Tech alerts are focused on three key pieces of information: (1) the nature of the incident, (2) the location where the incident has occurred, and (3) the action to be taken. Often the action to be taken is simple, such as “Stay away” or “Stay indoors.” Virginia Tech uses subsequent messages to provide additional information and to point to other sources of information. Developing the content of these messages is complicated, and it can be difficult to satisfy those receiving messages.
The specific language used in an alert can matter greatly. For example, the use of the word “shooting” in the alert sent about the 2007 incident
at Virginia Tech would come under criticism later for having been too vague—that is, had someone been shot accidentally or had a violent crime occurred?3 In another incident, an alert about an escaped convict believed to be on campus referred to the escapee as a “murderer”—language that some criticized as being too inflammatory.
At Virginia Tech, a set of message templates has been developed to improve the understandability of messages and to reduce the time needed for agreement to be reached on their formulation. These templates take into account 18 possible events, with two different categories of emergencies. The two categories are “Urgent” (for situations that may pose a threat) and “Immediate” (for situations confirmed to pose an immediate threat). The predetermined messages include the number of characters used by each template so that one can quickly see how much additional information can be included in the message. (Message length is limited by the maximum of 160 characters allowed in an SMS message.) Also, great emphasis is placed on avoiding jargon in the messages so that they can be readily understood.
USE OF MULTIPLE METHODS TO ENSURE RECEIPT AND TO COPE WITH NETWORK CONGESTION
The Virginia Tech alerting system can activate several alerting methods simultaneously. Subscribers can designate up to three different communication methods—including as many as three telephone numbers—to receive voice messages, text alerts, and e-mail. (Allowing for three telephone numbers permits students to direct that alerts be sent to their parents as well.) Users are asked to confirm their receipt of messages; if a message is not confirmed, the system will attempt to reach the other registered numbers. A third-party vendor coordinates the receipt of the message by cellular providers.
Several technologies are used to extend the Virginia Tech system—e-mails are used to send longer, more detailed messages, and displays that show the messages also sent by SMS are present in most classrooms. Other traditional alert and warning capabilities are also used, including a hotline number that provides recorded information, sirens, loudspeakers, and alerts to local media. Virginia Tech also provides desktop software that receives messages by means of an Internet connection and notifies the user with audio and a message window.
A final element of the Virginia Tech system is the university Web site.
Virginia Tech Review Panel. Mass Shooting at Virginia Tech: Report of the Review Panel. Richmond, Va. August 2007. Available at http://www.governor.virginia.gov/tempcontent/techpanelreport.cfm. Accessed April 13, 2010.
Because the university Web site had crashed on the day of the shooting in 2007, considerable effort was made subsequently to ensure that the site could withstand large amounts of traffic. For example, during emergencies the content is stripped down to only essential elements in order to reduce server load and network bandwidth.4 This capability is especially important because once an initial alert is sent, telephone systems can become saturated (as people seek additional information or attempt to ascertain the well-being of others). Through the inclusion in initial messages of a pointer to the Web site for additional information and updates, users know where to continue to go to get information as a situation develops.
An important element of any alerting system is the establishment of a protocol that formalizes decisions made about what events the emergency notification system will be used for and about who makes the decision to notify the public (or other agencies or organizations). The protocol also establishes a standard that can be consulted in case, in the aftermath of an event, questions arise regarding why a message was or was not sent.
Especially when dealing with particularly dangerous or threatening events, it is important to be able to issue alerts promptly. One possible source of delay is the time that it can take on-duty personnel to contact and gain the approval of the officials with the authority to issue an alert. To avoid such a potential delay, the Virginia Tech protocol gives explicit authority to whichever senior police officers (those with a rank of sergeant or corporal) are on duty and also gives authority to other (nonpolice) campus officials. The intent is to provide the officials on duty with confidence that they have the authority to issue alerts when needed.
Virginia Tech tests all the notification channels of its system each semester. Additional, limited tests are periodically conducted with smaller test populations. Such tests are mandated by both federal law (the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008) and Virginia law. Although these
tests are expensive (a full functional test at Virginia Tech costs roughly $150,000), they not only verify that the system operates correctly, but they help educate the target population about the service and provide confidence to decision makers that the capability will work when needed.
The geographical area covered by both the Virginia Tech alerting system and DC Alerts overlaps with that covered by other alerting systems and provided by other universities or local jurisdictions. DC Alerts has developed partnerships with the multiple universities in the District of Columbia. Its initial agreement was with the George Washington University, to ensure that students would receive alerts and be notified of any recommended protective action. Virginia Tech has several campuses in the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area not covered by the campus alerting system; furthermore, alerts regarding the Blacksburg, Virginia, main campus might not be relevant for those on campuses in the Washington, D.C., area. Virginia Tech encourages those students to register with DC Alerts to ensure they have access to alerts and warnings information.
DC Alerts has the additional challenge of reaching commuters and tourists who do not reside in the city. Tourists are unlikely to have registered for alerts, and commuters will primarily be interested in alerts and warnings only while they are working in the city. Although the registration system allows people to sign up for some alerts to be sent only during work hours, people still need to register for multiple systems—one for their home and one for work—if they are to receive all relevant alerts and warnings.
EDUCATION OF THE PUBLIC
Community organizations and leadership play an important educational role with respect to DC Alerts. The District of Columbia received Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funds that supported extensive training and drills for citizens, including staff and students in the local schools. The District of Columbia initiated 36 community and neighborhood programs. The District’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency spent about 6 months working in the neighborhoods educating the community and working with community leadership. A program manager and program monitors were identified not only to work within the community to ensure that alerts and warnings were disseminated but also to provide feedback to emergency responders during an actual emergency
or crisis on how the community was being affected, what the current response in the community was, and what additional information might be helpful.
At Virginia Tech, with its steady flow of new students arriving each year, there is need for a continuous process of educating new members of the community. Virginia Tech is currently developing a training program for students, faculty, and staff to ensure that the population is aware of emergency preparedness and its importance.
OBSERVATIONS OF WORKSHOP PARTICIPANTS
In the discussion following the panel presentations, a number of observations were offered regarding how information from SMS messaging might be applied to the Commercial Mobile Alert Service (CMAS). The observations included the following:
Community engagement can be an important part of any system. Community organizations can assist in educating the public about emergency preparedness, can assist in the dissemination of information during major events, and also can provide emergency managers with feedback on the public response. Although CMAS does not have a built-in capability to verify that messages are received, community organizations can provide that information during and after an event.
Coordination among geographically overlapping emergency notification systems can help ensure that affected populations receive alerts and warnings.
Alerting systems operated by local jurisdictions and other organizations can supplement and complement the information delivered by CMAS.
Multiple alerting tools using distinct communications channels are invaluable in maximizing the population reached during an emergency.
Approaches such as CMAS’s use of a separate delivery channel or the use of low-bandwidth Web sites can ease the stress placed on networks and increase the likelihood that affected populations are able to receive messages.
Although higher precision of geographical targeting is desirable in order to provide people with the most relevant information, this can be difficult to achieve in practice. CMAS only localizes by county or equivalent jurisdiction, and alerts sent by individual jurisdictions are based on telephone numbers or e-mail addresses and thus cannot target people moving among multiple jurisdictions.