On Nov. 17, 2011 around 6 p.m., I sat in the fire station listening to possible reports of a tornado in my community. My municipal fire department was not receiving any calls for service but the county departments received countless incident responses.
Quickly I took a map book and began plotting 911 calls onto the map to establish a direction of travel for the tornado. As calls were plotted onto the map, it became apparent that I had several points of interest along the direction of expected travel. My church, my parents, my sister and many friends’ homes were all in the direct path. With this particular tornado, it travelled for 10.9 miles in a straight path barely missing very important targets. As fast as someone in duress could dial, I phoned people along the path to warn of an impending tornado.
Following the aftermath of this tornado, our department discussed how we could be more prepared for disasters. The first steps were to evaluate the abilities of our reverse 911 for public notifications. We did have a reverse 911 system in place which would take up to 12 hours to notify 11,000 people. When seconds count, this is insufficient at best. We knew there had to be a better way with the amount of technology available. Unfortunately with this tornado, there were two lives lost in our community. Prompt notifications are imperative to save lives.
Mass notification systems provide community leaders with the ability to reach their customer base. Thomasville, North Carolina has 27,000 residents. It would take nearly 30 hours to reach the entire customer base under the older system. There had to be a better way to reach everyone and there was. Thomasville decided on a mass notification software system. This program provides swift notifications by calling every business and residence in about four minutes. On several occasions, there have been notifications pushed to the entire city for water shortage crisis. Freezing temperatures have caused the ground to shift rupturing water lines essentially depleting our water infrastructure. Thomasville city leaders can take comfort that residents can be notified of an impending life-threatening situation in less than four minutes.
Mass notification software systems provide a completely new avenue for reaching everyone by pushing phone calls, text messages, social media, traditional media releases and emails. The software gives the ability to push a message through each pathway all at the same time. It takes less than 30 seconds to compose a message before transmitting. The messages are delivered minutes later. The system generates a report within two hours which provides performance results. Text messages are pushed out and provide instantaneous feedback. The system has reports that provide accurate information about how many people answered, how many voicemails and how many no answers.
Severe weather notification integration with the National Weather Service (NWS) streamlines weather alerts through to our customers. When the NWS issues an alert, messages are texted and posted to our social media accounts. Weather alerts are imperative when a tornado is approaching an area. Our customer base is constantly evolving with the rapid changes in technology. Effective notifications provide accurate and timely information to the affected audience. People rely on social media and cell phones for the majority of communications. Harnessing this information will allow public safety to reach the intended audience.
Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) are available to access with this software. IPAWS was created post 9/11 to provide mass notification in the event of a disaster. IPAWS provides public safety officials with an effective way to alert and warn the public about serious emergencies using the Emergency Alert System (EAS), Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio and other public alerting systems from a single interface.
A mass notification software system allows our department to reach our customer base in any emergency. These types of notifications have not normally been left up to individual departments to provide the service to your community; however, it is important to have. Fire departments should reach out to their respective 911 centers and emergency management agencies to see what capabilities are available to notify your area of an impending disaster. For Thomasville, our messages are coordinated with our local emergency management agency to avoid duplication of efforts.
In summary, lives are on the line when disasters strike. Pushing emergency messages to your area could be the difference in who gets out alive. When seeking a notification system, look for one that gives the ability to reach your entire audience, provides timely notifications and offers versatility through text, phone call, voicemail, social media and IPAWS. We must abandon the theology that mass notification is someone else’s job. When public safety is imminently threatened, deliver your message and save lives. Your community depends on it.