Mass emergency notification systems aren’t as robust as you think

by Caroline Bottger

The 2019-2020 fire season has been one for the books. As of Sept. 15, 28 wildfires were burning in California, 38 in Oregon, and dozens in Washington state. Pictures spread across social media of orange, Lovecraftian skies, from the Bay Area to Portland. (At least two more fires have started in California’s Napa County as of Sept. 28, 2020.) In the midst of this fast-moving environment where clear communication is key, mass emergency notification systems are not working consistently to inform the public.

These messaging systems are platforms that let a user send a message to a large group of people. FEMA authenticates some of these Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs), like AMBER Alerts, and approves the companies that state and local governments can contract with. Popular platforms include Nixle and Everbridge.

But no technology is perfect, and technical malfunctions in the heat of the moment have caused serious issues. In California, officials in Napa and Sonoma Counties had to switch to a different message delivery system at the last minute, causing a significant chunk of people to not receive crucial evacuation messages.

Not everyone is getting the messages either. Some schools or companies automatically opt their user base in to receive messages, while others do not, leading to gaps in knowledge that put people at risk. In Oregon, locals explained that instead of receiving text messages, they had to rely on iffy information from social media. “There was no breaking news. There were no alerts,” said Niria Alicia, who found herself in the path of the Almeda fire in early September. “So I just had this gut feeling: We have to go.”

Sadly, these deadly malfunctions aren’t new. In 2018’s devastating Camp Fire in Paradise, CA, emergency alerts sent from the Butte County Sheriff’s office were sent from an opt-in only system, meaning that only a percentage of Paradise’s population received them. Butte County also held off from sending certain evacuation messages. In addition, downed power lines during the fire meant that even those who had opted in could not receive the messages.

The weaknesses of these systems also run along class and racial lines. Mass notification systems are not cheap, so for a small town with a dispersed, rural population, they might not be budget-friendly. Furthermore, it wasn’t until 2019 that WEAs became available in Spanish.

Despite these issues, the sector is forecasted to grow to $20 billion by 2025. The coronavirus pandemic has also opened the market even further. Schools are considering rolling them out on a larger basis to stay in touch with students, parents, and legal guardians. But with intense natural disasters becoming yearly occurrences, it’s clear that emergency notification systems and the infrastructures that support them have a long way to go.

Caroline Bottger is a freelance writer who writes on issues of technology, privacy, and security. 
 
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