So what about more comprehensive “real-time” warning systems? Today, these are a chaotic amalgam of technologies and procedures, many of which bare striking resemblance to the Cold War-era Emergency Alert System (which includes the “squeal” primarily heard as a “test of the Emergency Broadcast System”). Existing nationwide systems are limited in scope both by their technological legacies and by the organizational priorities of their sponsoring agencies.
In general, the existing national notification systems are lacking, due to a variety of shortcomings:
- Vagueness or “white noise” of warnings: For the terror-warning system, there is a lack of easily understood differentiation between colors, particularly as the system has hovered only between yellow and orange in the past year. The Emergency Broadcast System has been tested so much more often than it has been used that, even in its revamped form, it doesn’t inspire action;
- Uncoordinated warnings: There is no coordinated infrastructure to make certain that warnings are delivered to the right people – particularly public safety officials – at the right time;
- Non-interoperable systems: While there are eight federal warning systems to provide information about catastrophic events, the systems cannot exchange information and may distribute conflicting advisories. None of the existing national systems are entirely suited to the needs of state, local and private emergency notification systems.
Private industry has stepped up by creating and utilizing new technologies to help monitor and alert for large-scale disasters. For example, major utilities such as Alliant Energy and Southern California Edison, are using notification technologies to ensure that blackouts like the one that ravaged the east coast this summer, are not repeated elsewhere. Active alerting systems are the most relevant solution to safeguard against a repeat of this type of event.
“Some areas, such as New England, had these technologies in place and were able to isolate themselves from the grid and avoid a blackout,” said Jill Feblowitz, of AMR Research, an analyst firm in Boston.
Feblowitz said that such systems have been in use in California for years to keep rolling blackouts from wreaking larger-scale havoc. There have been wide-scale calls for regulations that would include these technologies as part of an upgraded power grid system.
The Department of Homeland Security has also endeavored to work more closely with private industry to develop new solutions for more effectively notifying the public in the event of a major emergency. These partnerships and new solutions have been tested at events like TOPOFF 2, the most comprehensive terrorism response exercise ever undertaken in the United States. During the May drill, when a simulated bioterrorism event hit Chicago, one hospital was able to use an advanced notification system to complete more than 1,000 phone calls in a matter of minutes, reaching its entire “code triage” database with a few mouse clicks. The traditional approach – manual phone trees – would have taken hours, offered no audit trail, and ultimately, would have been less effective. Through the drill, an additional 132 hospital staff members were brought in to help treat the 75 “plague” victims, with 56 surviving due to the quick care they received.
Tests like TOPOFF 2 are a good opportunity to highlight the new technologies that can be used to facilitate effective emergency communication. These rehearsals, along with lessons learned over the past two years, serve to illustrate the importance of a nationwide notification system that includes:
- Automatic, multi-modal dissemination of warning notifications through repeatable methodologies;
- A unified, centralized database of warnings to be shared with federal, state, regional, and local organizations to increase the “situational awareness” of all organizations through analysis of historical patterns;
- Standards-based tools to allow agencies, organizations, and businesses to incorporate emergency notification technology into their continuity and contingency plans;
- A common protocol that creates highly interoperable systems to coordinate notification at all levels.
More than two years after Sept. 11, organizations remain woefully unprepared to react quickly in order to alert and protect their constituencies. In partnership with private industry and trade organizations, government has an obligation – and the technology – to implement a national alert and warning system that can effectively caution people and potentially save lives.
Ben Levitan fills the role of president and chief executive officer at EnvoyWorldWide, driving corporate growth and strategy. Prior to joining EnvoyWorldWide, Levitan was chief operating officer at Viant Corporation (NASDAQ:VIAN), where he led the Internet services firm to unprecedented growth. Previously, Levitan served as chief executive officer at James Martin & Co. (now Headstrong) and was responsible for leading the company to profitability. He has also served as senior vice president of operations at Cambridge Technology Partners, where Levitan built the organization’s first Internet-focused practice and headed the company’s customer management and financial services industry practices. He was also instrumental in facilitating merger and acquisition activities. Levitan currently serves on the board of directors of Primavera Systems, and is a member of the Council on Competitiveness and Young President’s Organization. Levitan was educated at Union College and the London School of Economics.