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Robust public warning systems are at the heart of effective Critical Event Management

When cities, states and countries are struggling to respond to multiple critical events, robust public warning systems can be a lifeline for authorities in tackling them. At the same time, errors and loopholes in established systems and protocols can exacerbate the situation.

This is clearly exemplified in the California which, already struggling to fight COVID-19, has to deal with multiple wildfires ravaging the state simultaneously in different counties. The west coast wildfires that have painted the Californian skies an ominous hue have further threatened public safety and are creating a deep sense of panic among residents.

When the LNU Lightning Complex fire exploded over 36 hours ago, expanding from three burns across 12,000 acres to more than a half-dozen fires scorching more than 120,000 acres, parts of the Bay Area were knocked back on their heels.

Officials said, in Vacaville, where police, firefighters and Solano County sheriff’s deputies were evacuating people door to door in the middle of the night, someone had to go to the home of an Emergency Operations Center worker and wake him up because his cellphone had been set to vibrate.

In Napa County, emergency managers considered sending out a targeted Amber Alert-style message to cellphones telling residents to stay vigilant in case they needed to evacuate but ultimately had to use other means that potentially reach fewer people.

“During the construction of the message content, it was discovered that there was a software error in the system, so we instead issued our message utilizing the NIXLE alert tool,” said Janet Upton, a county spokeswoman.

And then there is Sonoma County, where, unlike three years ago when the previous emergency management director failed to alert some residents of a fire at all, the department’s current leader is concerned with having alerted too many.

“Using this system is like doing your taxes every time,” Chris Godley, Sonoma County’s director of emergency management, said of their alert software. “It’s a very challenging, technical process each time you do this, even though we’re relatively well-versed.”

“We didn’t expect the fire to come into our county the way it did,” said Solano County Sheriff’s Deputy Le’Ron Cummings.

Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties, among others, introduced high-low sirens, modeled after the European siren sound, intended to alert the public of an imminent disaster. All three also boosted public enrollment in their subscription-based alert system.

But possibly the most noticeable change was the use of the federal Integrated Public Warning and Alert System (IPAWS) and its Amber Alert-style warning, called Wireless Emergency Alert. For years the technology was notoriously avoided by emergency managers because its messages were considered too short to be helpful while often reaching too many people unnecessarily. Despite the system glitches the authorities in the county believe in the power of public warning systems during emergencies.

“It’s extremely helpful where you may not get tourists signed up for your local [program],” said Henry Wofford, Napa County sheriff’s spokesman. “Our whole purpose is to get it in their hands on their cellphones, in case they’re not at home, in case they’re in their backyard watering their lawns.”

Recently the country of Norway has also adopted a public warning system to alert citizens travelling internationally to mitigate COVID-19 risks. Country’s Directorate of health is utilizing the system to notify Norwegians’ of the changing threat profile and related safety protocols such as the related quarantine guidelines.

Critical event management has come to the fore with the pandemic. Forecasting, planning and management of critical events help organisations and authorities prevent disruption of life and damage to property.

Everbridge’s public warning solutions can make a significant difference in mitigating harm caused by such critical events. They provide richer intelligence and correlating threats with locations of assets and people ensuring more rapid and comprehensive incident assessment and remediation.

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