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Public Safety Alerting: What Critical Infrastructure Teaches Us About CEM

The frequency and severity of critical events that require public interaction – from extreme weather and rolling blackouts, to public health emergencies, domestic terrorism and civil unrest – is increasing. Is public safety alerting and critical event management (CEM) keeping pace?

When the public needs to be notified about an incident, how effectively is that happening? Have we collectively improved since the Hawaii missile false alarm or the Ontario nuclear incident miscommunication?

Answering these questions is especially important for organizations that serve the public. Think critical infrastructure, like the public utilities that provide our energy and clean water. The right technology offers huge benefits when it comes to public safety alerting. There’s the ability to communicate instantaneously, to collaborate across agencies, and for systems to be interoperable. Today, with a mobile phone in almost everyone’s pocket, the vast majority of the public can be reached in an instant.

However, it’s still a challenge to get it right. How do we know when to send that critical alert, and how do we shape an effective message that helps people make the right decisions when it comes to their safety and that of their families, colleagues, or employees?

Key Challenges in Public Safety Communication

I’m always curious to learn more about how CEM plays out in particular sectors or industries, and just as interested in seeing what we can all learn from those scenarios. That’s why we asked Magda Sulzycki for insights. She’s an emergency and business continuity management professional — with more than a decade’s experience — in public safety and government critical infrastructure programs.

The issues she identifies come from her experience in those realms but apply to many scenarios and business types. I’d invite you to see what resonates and what you can glean, regardless of your industry or sector.

The following are Magda’s comments from my conversation with her.

Public Safety Alerting Challenge 1: Identifying Truth Among Misinformation

“In the critical infrastructure sector, on a good day, you're monitoring dozens of different systems simultaneously to monitor the health of your organization and the services you're providing. And even if that’s just one hospital, for example, there are dozens of different things that you're watching every single day to make sure that it’s running well and safely.

"Multiply those elements across a whole city or a province or country – and now the world, and you can see how complex that network of information becomes and how difficult it is to extricate truth from misinformation and organize everything in such a way that you can make sense of what's going on.”

Public Safety Alerting Challenge 2: Handling Events that Blindside You

“We break down emergency management into different phases, but one of the most important is prevention, mitigation, and preparation. That old axiom of ‘a pinch of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ really applies here. If we can prevent the emergency that's ideal, but we can't stop a tornado from coming.

"Typically, you'll see a lot of communities conduct risk assessments and they'll try to figure out: What is in my environment? What am I potentially at risk of experiencing? And is that a tsunami or landslides, or a tornado? And you can start to bring together information sources that are credible and useful to you in those scenarios.

"Preparation is a huge part of an effective emergency management system or program. Emergency managers spend a good amount of time on planning for what they know could happen. But then there are the events that blindside you – a whole other scenario that comes around the corner that you didn't expect.

"The good thing is a lot of that preparation is transferable. And a lot of the preparatory activities can be transferred from one emergency to another. But sometimes they catch us off guard and we must pivot and respond really quickly and do the best we can under the circumstances that we're faced with.”

Public Safety Alerting Challenge 3: Meaningful Messaging – At Speed

“In the last decade-plus working in this area, especially being in the machine that turns out that message, the hardest part is getting the right information in, and from the right sources, so that you can translate it and produce a meaningful message for the public.

"You might need to consult a number of different experts, evaluate continually evolving messages, and juggle different opinions and information coming at you simultaneously. These factors make it really difficult to churn something out very quickly that’s meaningful and actionable for the public to execute.”

Public Safety Alerting Challenge 4: Clear Messages for a Diverse Public

“Comprehension is a real challenge. In Toronto, Canada, we have over 180 different languages spoken. A good chunk of the population speaks neither English nor French as their primary language. And so right off the hop, there are challenges with comprehension.

"Also, among different demographic groups, you have some who absolutely hate and never use devices like cell phones, or tablets. And there are some who can't be separated from them for more than two seconds. It’s important to get the balance right when it comes to getting that information to people in the right way. You need to understand who your audience is and how they prefer, or how they need, to get their message.

"You should also offer multiple different ways for people to get that message depending on their accessibility needs, for example, making sure you know what any alert sounds like when it’s read by text-to-speech software.

"On top of the complexity of generating the message and putting it out there, these are the things that I take into account: the language, the tone, accessibility, the reading comprehension level. They’re all things that you have to factor in.”

Reducing Jeopardy in Critical Communications

The pace of change and uncertainty in any emergency situation throws challenges at communicators. Decisions can be tricky to make, particularly when lives, property, or businesses are at risk. Learning from experts like Magda is invaluable. And letting technology — like BlackBerry® AtHoc® — take the strain when it comes to planning and deployment, means your communications teams can focus on getting the message right the first time.

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Ryan Burrus

About Ryan Burrus

Ryan Burrus is a Senior Product Marketing Manager at BlackBerry.