Why Emergency Notification Systems Are Effective

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Written By: J. Lasswell
October 26, 2023

"He who hesitates is lost." - Proverb

On Oct 4, 2023 at 2:18 p.m. EDT millions of American cell phones, radios and televisions bore a distinctive emergency alarm tone, followed by the message: "THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System (WEAS). No action is needed." This message was received at the same time, country-wide, from POTUS to rural America. At that moment, we were all in sync, all in attention. Together and simultaneously we partook in a flirtation of our collective worst fears, followed by the reassurance that no matter who you are, what your status is, when a national crisis emerges, your participation is accounted for.

Curiously, the prevailing consensus preceding the WEAS test message - which is ultimately intended to protect us - was a feeling of general anxiety. Why do these alarms cause such an unsettling feeling? 

What the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) calls the “Attention Signal” is that peculiar, dissonant tone that is actually two sine-wave tones played on top of each other, one at 853 Hz and the other at 960 Hz. This noise was originally designed to prompt station equipment to engage in the event of an emergency, but it has a much more profound secondary effect: being so unearthly and robotic that you immediately stop what you're doing and pay attention to the sound.

Just as we’ve learned from critical response expert James Dunleavy, the most important aspect of responding effectively to an emergency is awareness. But as we’ve seen in this year’s Michigan State Shooting, even the sounds of gunfire and seeing a masked intruder aren’t always enough to spur people into realizing the grave danger they’re in. 

Events such as school shootings are commonly described as acutely surreal by those that survive them. Prof. Marco Díaz-Muñoz, survivor and first hand witness of the Michigan State Shooting said, “It looked like a robot, not someone human, covered with a mask and a cap…It seemed just unreal.” The extraordinary nature of these events make it hard to fully embrace the reality of the situation. Hence, the key to effective emergency notification is to rapidly communicate danger, along with actionable information, while being jarring enough so that occupants are pushed through the fog of absurdity, into the reality of their situation. 

How should information be communicated in an emergency notification?

If it was feasible, all information relative to the emergency would be communicated, but cramming all those details into a message wouldn’t promote expediency. The message needs to be direct, concise, and only include the most practicable information. These messages should supersede any tech interface that hides the immediacy of the alert, such as a setting on a particular phone that hides text message previews. We were all able to receive the WEAS test message simultaneously because FEMA's Integrated Public Alert & Warning System unifies our nation's emergency communications, facilitating the aggregation of alerts across a network and their distribution to the numerous devices in our hands.

If you ever receive a genuine WEAS message in the event of an emergency, it will include essential information, including the alert type, location, time, and recommended actions - all conveyed within 360 characters. These alerts aren’t susceptible to the usual cell phone headaches; you’ll never be out of range, lack data, or have your session disrupted so as to not receive a WEAS alert.

On a national level, we are able to notify everyone with actionable alerts instantly, regardless of their location or device type, so are schools and other organizations able to scale the success of FEMA’s and the FCC’s systems down to the community and campus level?

After the tragedy of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting revealed the deadly consequences of an uncoordinated (or completely lacking) communication strategy, schools flocked to implement emergency notification systems in their communities, but as in the case of most developing security tech, many of these solutions were incomplete. It wasn’t until the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Forida that a renewed focus was brought onto emergency notification. Legislation was written to mandate an improvement of emergency response, such as Alyssa’s Law, which requires “all public elementary and secondary school buildings be equipped with silent panic alarms that directly notify law enforcement.” In these more recent high-profile school shootings, we’ve seen that it’s not only important that this information is communicated quickly and completely, but these systems also must work in conjunction with first responders to decrease response time. With the current innovations in security tech promising more rapid response with more accurate information, some systems boast a reduction in response time of about 60%.

In Fall 2012, Spring 2013, and Summer 2013 students enrolled in an undergraduate health education course were asked to complete an online-delivered survey regarding their university’s emergency notification system. The results of the data suggest that their use of the system was both intuitive and effective, receiving high marks in “attitude towards use” and “response.” Remarkably, when it came to response, those surveyed scored how compelled they were to “take actions such as leaving campus, evacuating a building, avoiding an area of campus, contacting a law enforcement agency, or alerting other individuals to the notification” with a nearly-impeccable alpha score (α =0.98)

It’s clear that on the user end, the progress made in effective crisis communication is promising. While data pertaining to the effectiveness of these systems within their clients’ use is still unavailable, the data (however limited) suggests occupants are willing to interact with these systems and can identify the efficacy of emergency notification systems. 

However, there is still progress to be made - 64% of respondents to a 2022 Campus Safety Emergency Notification Survey said they use at least 2 systems for emergency notifications, with 11% having six or more systems. While doing this helps schools avoid having a single point of failure and helps them tailor the strengths of one system against another, it would be more conducive for schools to have a singular system that accounts for mass notification, silent panic alarms, instant first responder communication and actionable information in unison. Not only does having multiple systems that need to be refined and onboarded correctly incur tech debt, but in a crisis, having to navigate across multiple systems and logins can be hazardous. 

We are in the position today with security tech that we can be asking more from our emergency response systems. Schools shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of using six systems to respond effectively in an emergency, rather schools should seek out solutions that account for all elements of effective emergency response communication - silent panic buttons, mass notification, first responder alerts, occupancy and visitor management, all performing in unison on one interface. Here are some new innovations in emergency notification that stakeholders should become familiar with:

Communication with parents: Drift Net’s Emergency Notification allows you to customize mass notifications to include community stakeholders, with the ability to have customizable, pre-composed messages to send to parents to keep them informed and updated during an emergency.

Actionable information for first responders: Drift Net’s Emergency Notification will alert first responders when a threat is identified with actionable information, such as the type of emergency, location, number of nearby occupants and location of emergency assets.

Integration to daily use: Your emergency notification system shouldn’t have to sit untouched until there’s a drill or critical incident. With the ability to communicate announcements, event reminders, customized messages and even use as a PA, Drift Net’s Emergency Notification can be used for everyday communications.

Customizable features for different alerts: Drift Net’s system has customized messages at the ready for specific events will help you save time and react with the pertinent information. 

Integrate with your security infrastructure: Drift Net’s systems extend emergency communication to teachers and visitors with Smart ID Badges that include a silent panic button.


Read “The Crucial Role of Parent Notification” by Dr. Beth Sanborn here