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A Timeline of Mass Emergency Notifications in the U.S.

Ever since man first used fire to light warning beacons on hilltops, mass emergency notifications have been alerting communities to the risk of danger.

Mass emergency notifications have evolved significantly since the days of hilltop beacons. From establishing networks of horse-borne messengers to ringing church bells, communities have always found ways to alert residents to the risk of danger. Stage coaches and railways accelerated the pace at which warnings could be delivered over long distances; and, at the end of the nineteenth century, telegrams replaced horse-borne messengers, while electricity-powered sirens replaced church bells.

The invention and adoption of the radio added a new dimension to mass emergency notifications. Stations could interrupt programs to issue mass emergency notifications (as happened during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941); but it wasn´t until 1951 that the federal CONELRAD radio system was introduced as a means to warn American citizens in the event of an enemy attack during the Cold War. CONELRAD was replaced in 1963 by the Emergency Broadcast System, which was much more reliable and could transmit mass emergency notifications at national, state, and local level.

The Emergency Alert System and IPAWS

The current Emergency Alert System was introduced in 1997 to accelerate the speed at which Presidents could address the American people and to address concerns the previous system was too fragile to cope with nationwide, real-time mass emergency notifications. Due to the scope of the system also being extended, it is jointly coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

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Following criticism over the way the Emergency Alert System was used during Hurricane Katrina, the system was integrated with the existing National Warning, Wireless Emergency Alerts, and NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards systems in 2007 to create the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). The integration of these systems into one unified network had the objective of taking advantage of newer forms of communication (i.e. cellphones, satellite TV, the Internet, etc.) to aggregate mass emergency notifications and communicate them more effectively.

Mass Emergency Notifications Go Two-Way

Strictly speaking, mass emergency notifications are one-way communications intended to alert communities to the risk of danger. However, in recent years, systems have been introduced that support two-way communications between emergency managers and individuals caught up in an emergency. These two-way mass emergency notification systems have the benefits of raising situational awareness, better preparing first responders for the situation they are about to encounter, and enabling emergency managers to prioritize emergency responses.

Because of their effectiveness in emergency management, the systems are often integrated into incident command platforms – the most high-profile platform being FEMA´s Web Emergency Operations Center (WebEOC), which was adopted in 2012 to improve planning, mitigation, response, and recovery phase activities for almost any emergency scenario. Since 2012, commercial organizations have been able to integrate their own emergency management systems with FEMA´s WebEOC provided they comply with FEMA´s Private Sector National Incident Management System Implementation Activities.

The Future for Mass Emergency Notifications

It is difficult to know what the future holds for the evolution of mass emergency notifications. Nowadays individuals can receive mass emergency notifications via cellphones, smart watches, digital signage, and voice broadcasts. Mass emergency notifications can be send from any Internet-connected device with a few taps of a screen or clicks of a mouse to millions of individuals simultaneously and individuals can be segmented into groups according to their location, role, or other attribute to make sure the right message gets to the right people at the right time.

Because mass emergency notification systems now have web-based and SMS opt-in/opt-out capabilities, individual businesses, schools, universities, and healthcare organizations are implementing the systems to address the challenges raised by constantly changing populations. As with the federal, state, and local government systems, commercial mass emergency notification systems can also be used as incident command centers – again from any Internet-connected device – to better alert communities to the risk of danger, support them through an emergency, and accelerate post-incident recovery.