Our Emergency Alert Systems Rely on an Overlapping Mess of Privatized Services
FEMA has approved 25 private software platforms to disseminate alerts for authorities at state, local, territorial, and tribal levels
As a massive wildfire ripped through parts of Northern California last week — one of 650 new fires in the state since August 15 — emergency officials in Napa County turned to a messaging platform to warn residents to “remain vigilant,” should they need to evacuate.
But when authorities tried to send the alert, using a private service called Everbridge, they discovered a terminal error message, the Los Angeles Times reported. They were forced at the last minute to switch to Nixle, a similar but less robust platform also owned by Everbridge, ultimately causing fewer residents to receive the critical warning. The blaze known as the LNU Lightning Complex has since killed five people in Napa and Solano counties, and burned 375,000 acres of parched land.
Mass notification systems, from air raid sirens to emergency television broadcasts, have evolved over the years. Over the past two decades, many municipalities have added mobile alerts to their emergency arsenals as well. Now, jurisdictions across the country contract with software vendors to push emergency alerts to people’s phones, email, and social media feeds.
At their best, these free technologies can broaden access to critical information, translating life-saving messages into multiple languages or including helpful evacuation maps. Last week, Harris County, Texas, used Nixle to tell citizens to prepare emergency supplies as Hurricane Laura bore down on parts of the Gulf Coast. The town manager of Yountville, California, also used Nixle to update residents on containment of the LNU Lightning Complex fire in nearby areas.
But these alert services can also have shortfalls: They depend on mass adoption to be truly successful and may lure people into a false sense of security. Throughout the past several years, local emergency officials have experienced numerous challenges, including technology glitches and infrastructure failures.