Archive for May 27th, 2008

UCLA Emergency Manager’s view on the need for multimode notifications

May 27, 2008

I was absolutely thrilled to come across this post by David Burns, CEM(r), Emergency Manager with UCLA. It shows the growing awareness of the limitations of SMS text messaging–it simply is not the panacea that so many in emergency management in universities seemed to think after Virginia Tech. Mr. Burn’s listing of the different modes of communication used today is more comprehensive than anything else I’ve seen.

Here are his comments as posted to the IAEM Discussion board:

People nowadays are connected to wide variety of technology to share and
gather information:

– they listen to the radio (AM and FM), including NOAA weather alerts;
– they listen to satellite radio (XM & Sirius;
– they use social networking sites (friend’s lists);
– they listen to podcasts;
– they use the Internet;
– they watch television (cable, over-the-air, and satellite);
– they text each other and receive text messages (SMS);
– they listen to amateur radio and public safety scanners;
– word of mouth, etc.

Our alert systems need to be just as diverse, flexible and adaptable to
the means by which people receive and exchange information.  With the
incidence of campus violence becoming a popular subject, college campus
administrators and campus emergency managers are looking to improve how
they communicate with their campus communities.   Because funding is
always an issue, especially in the surge of an economic slowdown, money
is the driving issue.

The solution in improving communication is money-based as in where do
you get the biggest bang for the buck?   In the year that has passed,
many SMS text-messaging vendors misrepresented the real-world
capabilities of text-messaging system to many of the folks who purchased
a product.   Now they have a resource, but with extreme limitations and
a broad definition of what successful delivery is? – from minutes to

Every resource we have in our mass notification arsenal all have
limitations.   Anyone who relies on just one single system is probably
foolish to believe that any one resource can be the “end-all, be all”
resource for a community as diverse as a college campus.   In fact, I
would suggest that you are actually increasing your risk and liability
for litigation by reliance on any single system.  Money drives this
logic, as people “settle” for what they can afford, knowing it will not
work, but are willing to roll the dice to have something tangible in
place, something to deflect potential criticism.

I spoke with a Virginia Tech administrator in June 2007, two months
after the massacre.  The one thing that I heard, and have listened to is
to “never settle for what you can’t afford.”   Their after-action report
was clear; many of their systems became overwhelmed because of the
tragedy as a result of geography (rural – limited capabilities), limited
systems, network and system bandwidth limitations, coupled with
worldwide demand for information is recipe to bring any local system(s)
crashing down.

SMS is only one resource.  It has severe limitations.   Use of SMS has
increased significantly over the past 5 years, especially in the past 14
months.  Technology advances make many systems obsolete within a couple
of years.  If everyone is using a system, increased use increases the
likelihood of failure in an emergency.

We currently use a SMS/text resource on our campus.   66% of the
students have refused to sign up despite regular marketing campaigns,
meaning that investment in such systems have limited success.   SMS
nationwide is rejected by the students themselves based on a 30% percent
sign-up average.   This issue alone makes the use of SMS limited in its
success by the sheer apathy of the student community itself.

We currently utilize 15 independent system resources to alert students,
faculty, and staff of an emergency on campus, and have yet to achieve
100% coverage because of the number of systems people are attached to or
not attached to on a daily basis.   We will continue to add resources to
increase our outreach.

Be well,

David S. Burns, CEM(r)
Emergency Manager

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
Office of the Associate Vice Chancellor
General Services / Emergency Management Office