FEMA works with their federal, state and local partners to prepare for the landfall of Hurricane Dorian in Tallahassee, Fla, on Sept. 2, 2019. (K.C. Wilsey/FEMA)

How Emergency Managers Can Meet Challenges of Increasingly Complex Threat Climate

Federal and state emergency managers – and their agencies – face an increasingly complex threat climate. FEMA recently queried its state counterparts in emergency management (EM) for their insights into how they are working to change emergency management to prevent tomorrow’s emergency. The insights are instructive, offering a glimpse of where emergency management resources and efforts are being directed. At the same time, they shed light on key challenges that require innovative processes, technologies and best practices to help EM leaders better protect citizens as well as employees and first responders.

State emergency management focus areas

The need for location-based data available to decision makers and stakeholders at all levels: Leaders in Arizona, Missouri and other states refer to the importance of location-based data to improve situational awareness. In Missouri, this means integrating advanced mapping technology with a user-friendly interface to provide portals for situational awareness during critical incidents as well as resources for floodplain mitigation and management.

Viewing cybersecurity and physical security threats at same level: In October 2018, the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management hosted a cybersecurity exercise with more than 70 participants in attendance. Across many states, efforts are being made to train for cyber threats the same way public safety and law enforcement might train for threats to physical venues and infrastructure.

Cyber attacks that impact agency workforces, as well as citizens, have evolved far beyond just being an issue for the IT department. State agencies have been upended by ransomware attacks that paralyze operations, and prevent citizen services from being accessible. Recent events in Baltimore and Atlanta demonstrate how quickly an attack can cripple operations.

Ransomware attacks, in particular, demonstrate time is of the essence. If the network is down and computers and email are not accessible, every second matters when it comes to notifying and alerting employees in real-time so that further damage isn’t done (i.e. preventing employees from opening phishing emails on a computer, accessing files via mobile phone, or any other action that further exposes the agency).

In a 2018 Disaster Recovery Guide survey, ransomware ranked as the second most concerning cybersecurity threat for public-sector decision makers – trailing only malware. Overall, 15 percent of those surveyed said that cybersecurity attacks are their leading concern when it comes to emergency communications and response.

Improving emergency notification registrations: In Colorado, leaders point out that fewer than 20 percent of residents in some communities are registered for local alerts and notifications, while fewer than half of Colorado counties are approved to use the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).

For all of the benefits that IPAWS, WEA and public alerting systems can deliver, usage rates at the county/local level remain low. There are roughly 3,000 counties across the U.S., yet for a variety of reasons fewer than 1,100 of them utilize IPAWS. Given that IPAWS can reach the mobile phone of every citizen (who owns one), increasing the number of counties using public alerting systems will go hand-in-hand with keeping more people safe.

Beyond IPAWS, localities often launch emergency mass notification systems without first educating citizens on its benefits, how the system works, and how their information will be protected (i.e., that it won’t be shared with third parties for marketing purposes). The more uncertainty that exists, the less likely residents will be to register for the system and actually use it.

States should continue to focus on making it as simple as possible for residents by heavily and consistently promoting their EMNS – including how to register to receive alerts. Outside of an actual emergency event that drives awareness, the most significant opportunity to drive mass registration is at program launch when you can benefit from media attention and the “newness” of the program.

Testing Alert Systems: Some state EM leaders noted the need for counties to rigorously test their alert and warning plans, adding that too many don’t even have plans. Leaders referenced the value of conducting rigorous, multifunctional exercises that weave in mass care, firefighting, law enforcement, agriculture and others.

Once an emergency notification system is implemented, it’s important to make ongoing testing a part of the regular schedule as it provides organizations with insight on vulnerabilities and risks associated with emergency communications. This will help teams identify and try new methods to streamline message transmissions. Testing can also help the community maintain its awareness about how they can expect to receive emergency messaging in case of an emergency. Not only is it important for administrators and recipients to understand the system and the technology, but this is also about building their confidence in interacting with it.

Climate-change-based weather hazards like floods and wildfires: In midwestern and southern Gulf states such as Iowa and Louisiana, the impact of climate change on severe and extreme weather is top-of-mind. Leaders are looking at innovative ways to prepare for these new challenges. In Louisiana, EM leaders cited the devastating floods of 2016 as a trigger for fundamental changes in disaster response systems and how future flooding risks can be mitigated.

Extreme weather events such as wildfires and floods complicate emergency response because it can be difficult to pinpoint which residents will be impacted without creating mass chaos and paralyzing evacuation efforts. In fact, in the same DRG survey, 48 percent of public-sector decision-makers said severe and extreme weather events were their leading concern when it comes to emergency communications and response – outpacing other events such as active shooters (23 percent), cybersecurity attacks (9 percent), IT outages (8 percent) and workplace violence (3 percent).

Severe storms, flooding, droughts, tropical cyclones, winter storms and wildfires demonstrate that these weather events are not confined to one region and can occur at any time of the year. As we adjust to this new pattern of extreme weather, emergency managers must also adjust their preparation tactics in order to mitigate risk; It’s no longer a matter of if a disaster could strike, it’s when. While EM leaders can’t control unanticipated disasters, risk can be mitigated by instituting proper communication channels, planning with federal and state leaders, and proper preparation and staff-wide training.

Emergency notifications in diverse geographic topography and rural areas: EM leaders in states like Maine that are geographically large but rural in nature must account for challenges in reaching certain locations during a disaster and communicating with residents in those areas.

Across many states and counties, unique EM challenges also exist when hundreds of thousands of residents are scattered across rural communities as well as dense, urban cities. In these scenarios, emergency mass notification systems can play a key role if they enable two-way notification (so citizens in hard-to-reach rural communities can provide critical info back to agency decision makers); geolocation so that only those affected are receiving critical information such as evacuation or shelter-in-place notifications that should only go to a defined set of users; and the ability to reach increasingly mobile-only residents who do not have landline phones or those in rural areas who still rely heavily on landline.

Coordination with school districts: In an example that is being replicated nationwide, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) is taking an expanded role with school safety by working with local school districts to help them better prepare for threats and hazards. Emergency managers acknowledge that a coordinated approach is required to neutralize threats to students – particularly in the face of emerging threats such as social media disinformation.

A new groundbreaking MIT study found false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than true stories are, and it takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does for false stories to reach the same number of people. One of the most alarming developments is how social media disinformation is disrupting the ability of first responders to protect people and property during natural and man-made crisis events ranging from hurricanes and wildfires to active shooter situations and terrorist threats.

Last year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded research to investigate the broad impacts of weather disasters, and the role of social media in communicating during disaster preparedness and response. Researchers cited one example where, after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, social media rumors suggested that immigration status would be checked at evacuation shelters. This type of false information complicates rescue operations and imperils citizen safety.

Emergency notifications delivered to student smartphones if, for example, there is an active shooter on campus or a severe weather event is imminent, must prioritize speed but also recognize that sending inaccurate information too quickly can be worse than a delay and compound social media disinformation. One way to balance this is by quickly sending out general information about an emergency event, while letting students know that more detailed updates will follow.

Emergency notifications to students can be enhanced when campuses work closely with local law enforcement. For some on-campus incidents such as reports of shots fired, often campus security are aware before local police. Being able to quickly launch a notification for the safety of faculty, staff and students can be improved with pre-built notification messages that can be launched with extreme speed in these instances.

How One County Trains Citizens on What to Do Until Help Arrives

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Don Hall is Government Solutions Director at OnSolve, a leading global provider of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) based critical communication solutions for enterprise, SMB, and government customers. Don has an extensive public safety career spanning more than 25 years, and in 2017 was appointed to the FEMA National Advisory Council Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) Subcommittee.

1 Comment

  1. Good article Don! Every one of the listed focus areas ought to be high on every emergency managers agenda….you mentioned it, but let me embellish….the holy grail for most all of the above is “real time situational awareness”….but, in order to achieve that, we must deal with the data interoperability challenge [i.e. data must be seen in context/put together in a meaningful way]…most of the focus has previously been on voice interop [which is certainly important], but the “new frontier” is on data interop….I understand DHS CISA is paying some attention to this issue and I think something will come out next year….stay tuned!

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