Recently, a band of severe storms made its way from the Midwest to the East Coast, leading the National Weather Service (NWS) to issue a tornado warning to parts of Maryland. Nearly five minutes after NWS issued their warning, the University of Maryland (UMD) campus alert system issued a tornado warning message to its subscriber base. This delay is the subject of a recent article published by UMD’s student-run newspaper, The Diamondback. The article, a first-hand account from the author, highlights the importance of receiving timely alerts and warnings. In this case, the author received the alert message from various applications on his phone before he received the campus alert message. Sometimes having more than one “tool in the toolbox” helps the public get the information they need in a timely fashion.
For emergency managers, the same might be said for getting the word out to the public. Today, having multiple channels to reach the public can be crucial to timely alerts and warnings. In some cases, area residents can receive alert messages via local opt-in services, through social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter, via third-party applications on smartphones, and by receiving Emergency Alert System alerts that are broadcast to radio and television stations.
In many cases, an emergency manager may not “own” all these various channels of alerts. In the instance of a university, the school may control its own opt-in system for email and text messages, but students may also see Emergency Alert System messages on TV or radio, or Commercial Mobile Alert Service message on their cell phones. Being alerted by all these different channels, the public can easily spot late messages. That seems to have happened in the case of UMd, and it is another reason why timeliness is key.
While having a variety of channels to send and receive alert messages can be helpful, it may also raise trust issues when:
- The messages come from a source that the recipient doesn’t view as credible
- The public receives multiple messages from multiple sources with incomplete or contradictory information.
In the case of the UMD incident, the author noted the campus alert message he received did not include information about what region the tornado warning applied to. This may have been confusing to those who only received the campus alert message. Fortunately, a tornado did not materialize, but those who have experienced one know how crucial minutes can be. Currently, there is no “silver bullet” solution for ensuring everyone receives an alert message when they should, but area residents and originators have options for sending and receiving timely information when it matters most.