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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The Broken Message: How Emergency Alerts Miss the Americans Who Need Them Most

We can move closer to an equitable community where all Americans are alerted to the hazards that do not similarly discriminate.

Major news outlets noted last month that the 2022 wildfire season is off to an ominous start[1][2]. Wildfires are starting earlier, taxing firefighters who are still recovering from last year’s record-setting season. The conditions in the Southwest are the driest in over a millennia, according to Columbia University and people continue to build homes deeper into previously wild areas,[3] providing fuel for fires, jeopardizing homes and putting themselves and first responders in danger.

When a wildfire or other disaster threatens a community, extra minutes to evacuate or take protective action are precious. To give those impacted the best opportunity to take protective action, they must have accurate information and clear direction as early as possible.  That is why utilizing emergency alert and notification systems to their fullest potential are so critical to notify the public during wildfires and many other crises.

Yet, many Americans remain unable to access these critical services. Inequitable design, limited availability in alternate languages, and spotty infrastructure have resulted in a system of emergency alert “haves and have nots.” If emergency managers’ collective goal is to build a safe and resilient nation for all, we must address these deficiencies now.

Today, “most disaster response systems are designed for people who can walk, run, see, drive, read, hear, speak and quickly understand and respond to instructions and alerts.”[4] While this addresses a large section of the population, it also hinders people with access and functional needs (AFN) from understanding and responding to emergency alerts. This population includes roughly 61 million people or about 1 in 4 adults in the United States.[5] Standards, tools, and initiatives such as the common alerting protocol (CAP) have begun address parts of the challenge; however, major hurdles remain.

One such hurdle is a lack of unified guidance on how to create and disseminate alerts to the AFN community within current emergency plans. To date, no such national guidance exists, leaving alerting authorities on their own to create alerting plans from scratch. The result is often incomplete plans and different alerting experiences for AFN people across jurisdictions, meaning individuals from the AFN community are not properly alerted during emergencies and are at a higher chance of being adversely impacted by loss of life or property.

To ensure that the AFN community can react properly to emergencies, common alerting practices and guidance must be established at the national level for alerting AFN communities and built with the involvement of the AFN community themselves. Doing so will be critical to Federal, State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial (FSLTT) alerting authorities establishing AFN alerting practices that ensure all people in their community can receive, understand, and respond to emergency situations.

Language barriers are also a major hurdle in reaching Americans with critical and timely emergency information. According to the most recent Brookings Institution report on English skills in the U.S. in 2014, nearly one in 10 working-age U.S. adults – 19.2 million persons ages 16 to 64 – is considered limited English proficient (LEP).[6] To help all people, critical emergency alert information must be translated into the languages that are spoken in the impacted communities. Providing additional guidance, tools, and funding to emergency management agencies would allow critical information to be translated and adapted to reach the portion of the population that does not speak English and would otherwise not receive life-saving information.

Like the AFN community, Tribal communities lack tailored approaches and targeted engagement that address their unique alerting needs. Specifically, approaches are needed to help develop mature alerting programs aligned to the cultural diversity of Tribal communities and increased community awareness of alerting programs. This is supported by a 2017 National Institute of Health (NIH) article “Cross-Jurisdictional Sharing for Emergency Management-Related Public Health: Exploring the Experiences of Tribes and Counties in California” that found tribes encounter two specific issues while implementing their tribe’s emergency management plan: lack of knowledge and funding. While a multitude of technical toolkits and grant programs exist to help local and tribal governments with emergency preparedness efforts, “the one size fits all concept doesn’t work” as some Tribal emergency managers lack the base knowledge and opportunities to gain experience, said Steve Golubic of the Ojibwe Tribe and Former Director of Tribal Affairs for the Department of Homeland Security.

The problem is further compounded by the lack of cellular or internet connectivity within rural Tribal communities. A 2019 FCC report that noted only 65 percent of the population on tribal lands have basic broadband access.[7] Lack of connectivity means that Tribal leaders are often unable to use traditional emergency alert methods such as social media and wireless alerts. To address this deficiency, tailored alerting practices and guidance must be established at the national level for Tribal communities establishing alerting programs and built with the involvement of Tribes themselves. Doing so will be critical to Tribal alerting authorities establishing successful alerting programs that address their cultural diversity and account for engagement challenges within their communities.

In these authors’ opinion, every American is entitled to receive, understand, and have time to act on the critical emergency information that can help them stay safe in a disaster. At a time of ubiquitous technology innovation, we believe it a tragedy that so many communities remain effectively disconnected from the emergency resources that many of us have come to consider a basic service. By adopting the recommendations in this piece, we can move closer to an equitable community where all Americans are alerted to the hazards that do not similarly discriminate.


[1] https://www.npr.org/2022/04/28/1095196849/the-southwests-spring-wildfire-season-has-started-earlier-than-normal

[2] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/wildfires-rage-in-west-destroying-homes-and-forcing-thousands-to-evacuate/

[3] https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1718850115

[4] https://rems.ed.gov/docs/Effective%20Communications%20for%20People%20with%20Disabilities.pdf

[5] https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/infographic-disability-impacts-all.html


[7] https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/FCC-20-188A1.pdf

Matt Lyttle and Sophie Bennett
Matt Lyttle and Sophie Bennett
Matt Lyttle is a Director in Guidehouse’s National Security Segment. He supports federal clients in strategy, transformation, and communications projects. Before joining Guidehouse, he was Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (HSGAC) staff, where he developed legislation on disaster resilience and emergency management. Matt has held several positions within FEMA’s National Preparedness Directorate, including as the Acting Deputy Director of Individual and Community Preparedness. In those roles, he designed and launched several FEMA programs aimed at building Private Sector preparedness, such as FEMA’s Ready Business program and Organizations Preparing for Emergency Needs (OPEN). Matt has deployed to multiple disasters, including Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, as a FEMA Intergovernmental Affairs Liaison and Private Sector Liaison. Sophie Bennett is a Senior Consultant with Corner Alliance, Inc., a Small Business consulting firm with a focus on public safety. She is a subject matter expert in emergency alerting technologies and best practices where her duties include supporting the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Through her role, she assists these agencies with research and development of public safety focused tools to protect the public.

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