Thursday, 8 May 2014

Public safety alert technology, a blend of old and new

Cold war air sirens have a new lease on life
Alerting the public is a critical issue many municipalities face when an impending crisis is about to unfold. Notification alerts are available through numerous communications mediums such as television, radio, mobile phones, internet services and traditional telephone land lines. Many regions have the ability to interrupt television and radio broadcasts to alert the public of an approaching disaster. Technology exists from telecom carriers to automatically call specific locations or entire counties by telephone with an automated message to not only notify individuals, but also leave instructions and how to prepare or where to evacuate. Television and radio are still the most popular methods to send out alert by holding press conferences. But they can often be lengthy and in some cases, ignored if they take too long. Timing they say, is everything. There are other issues such as enduring a long cycle disaster, whereby a disaster is not a singular event, but a wave of destructive events that occur over a long period of time such as the Tohuku earthquake in Japan and Hurricane Katrina over the Gulf of Mexico and Hurricane Sandy on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Infrastructure collapses at different times, eroding the ability to send additional information to the public.

Governments cannot afford every new technology that comes down the pike. Decisions have to be made based on available funding. Risk levels, and the ability to maintain and service emergency communications are often neglected portions in this discussion. The more complex or diverse these systems are, the higher the commitment of funding required. Some have discarded old warning systems such as air sirens as out of date while others have looked at telecom autodialer calls as too expensive or having limited capability. Early adopters of Short Message Service (SMS) complained about the limited amount of characters when broadcasting an alert message. Many of these systems are also not under the direct control of the government, but only available through the private sector. Compounding problem is deciding which telecom providers should be part of the service. These questions and others are difficult for public safety administrators to resolve. The capacity and performance of each alerting system has drawbacks and advantages. Experts agree that each emergency management agency should support at least 2, if not 3 different alerting systems in addition to social media and traditional television and radio access. The most obvious is telephone / internet, broadcasting and storing information for retrieval by residence. But as soon as connection to the grid and power supply goes off-line, radio becomes the most important, providing the individuals have a battery or hand crank rechargeable radio available, let alone, does it still work.

So what options are left to use? Several municipalities have decided to reuse cold war air sirens as mentioned earlier. They tend to withstand severe weather, have limited maintenance requirements and are already in place. Some systems go as far back as World War II. New ones are being put in place in several regions of the United States.

Meridian Fire Marshal Jason Collier says, "They are still very important; they are kind of a fall back system.

But in some cities, they have been all but decommissioned or torn down. Vancouver, B.C. decommissioned their air siren's back in the 1980's. Many are still standing but are no longer serviced. The complaint has been that  it is only an alert and nothing more. But that's actually a good thing. It tells a community to "check in" and find out what is going on if they were completely unaware. Public safety education is an important part of this equation ensuring next steps what residences should do. 

Amber alert SMS systems are an excellent choice. First developed to notify the public of missing children, its application to emergency broadcast notices is firmly embedded into protocol where available. In the country of Rwanda, they have decided it is the only medium available that can reach the majority of the public to notify the population of an impending severe meteorological event such as a flash flood. It's a good choice given that not everyone will be near a radio and many do not have access to television, while mobile cellular towers are being installed throughout the country. Even though SMS has limited messaging capability, notifications are sufficient to get people to safety in advance of a disaster event.

SMS Cell Broadcast has a proven track record during real disasters. In Sri Lanka, notifications and alerts to the population with regular updates were implemented, before Tsunami waves hit the country after the Banda Aceh earthquake in 2004. It was also used extensively during the London Underground bombings in July of 2005. Its use was not impeded by mass call events (saturation of the voice and data network) as priority over any other type of phone communication is ensured, eliminating any concern of signal capacity, and thus did not occur during the broadcast alert. Messages up to 15 pages long, each page can send messages 70 to 93 characters long (depending on the type of phone used) and be used indefinitely, as the cell towers are operational.

Agencies should enhance their use of social media to the maximum extent possible, providing disaster information, public safety education and protocols that government agencies have put into place. The use of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and SMS combined, improve a communities ability to withstand a severe shock. 

Radio broadcasting has evolved delivering powerful new applications. No longer limited to analog signalling technology, Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) is now being used in many parts of the world, particularly Europe, the Middle East, some regions in Southeast Asia and Africa. Low earth orbit satellite based radio is also popular. The advantage of DAB is that it is widely available for use and access. Most cars and trucks built after 2003 have DAB compatible radios that have digital encoding and text viewing options. Emergency broadcast signals could be integrated into every DAB radio station. In the U.S. and Canada, HD Radio has been adopted. It too has the same capabilities as DAB with a few differences. HD Radio used in the AM frequency bands is capable of sending data packets between 20 to 60 kb (kilobits) per second to a receiver. FM radio stations have been tested up to 150 kb. AM and FM performance is limited by a station's transmitter power, line of sight and receiver antenna quality. Radio stations are one of the first infrastructure assets that are repaired after a disaster hits. Some are built on an ad-hoc basis and emergency basis. In the city of Tacloban after Tyhoon Hiayan / Yolanda devastated the city, an crude but very useful FM station was built in the center of town 6 days after it struck. 

Handset radios versions have been available since 2009 with DAB or HD Radio data screens. We have not (yet) seen DAB or HD Radio handhelds with a built in hand crank generator available for low cost. But there is a solution that offers more flexibility, a hand crank multi-purpose charging station. These units can recharge devices using its built in 2000 mAH battery, that itself can be recharged in as little as 2.5 hours at a very low cost and size and can recharge a wide range of communications devices.

ETON 2000 mAH battery and recharging unit.

The broadcast and receiving of emergency alert notifications spans across old and new technology. It is possible to ensure awareness regardless of the circumstances or conditions. Agencies need to harness technologies that are best suited for their communities after identifying the types of risk exposure are most likely to occur. The population also has choices on how it stays informed that cannot be ignored. We have curated several stories you can read about in our DDRS magazine shown on the right hand column of this page. Living in high risk regions can be survivable as long as one prepare's with the right blend of information tools and services.

No comments:

Post a Comment