One in a series of articles about issues in public alerting and broadcasting’s role in it.
Rob Dale in the Ingham County Emergency Operations Center in Mason, Mich.
LANSING, MICH. — Rob Dale is concerned about how emergency managers use tools for public alerting. After spending 12 years as a meteorologist on television in Michigan, he moved into the disaster world and has been a regional planner with Ingham County Homeland Security and Emergency Management for eight years.
He is vocal about alerting issues, expressing concern that emergency managers, fire, police and 911 dispatchers are given little to no formal training in mass public communication. Commenting recently on an SBE listserv about the use of EAS and WEA alerts, he wrote: “We put a tool in hands of people who don’t do this regularly, using software that is far from intuitive, with terms that still confuse people (as we saw here with IPAWS and WEA and EAS), and an oversight organization (FCC) which says they are not going to get involved with any entity that misuses the system, and all the cards are stacked against it.”
Dale graduated from Jacksonville State University with a bachelor’s degree in emergency management and earned a masters in emergency and disaster management from American Military University.
Radio World asked him about the emergency management world and his work to develop better methods for communicating disaster information to the public.
Radio World:When we talk about emergency management and emergency alerting, who is included in that group?
Rob Dale: The folks sending out alerts are fire, police, public safety or 911 dispatchers. An emergency manager is kind of like the support staff for the boots on the ground folks. Some are police-based, which is where I am in the county sheriff’s department. Some are firefighters and some are independent.
Basically, our role is when the disaster gets too big for police and fire on the scene, then we come in to assist them. We are resource finders. We are like the Amazon of disasters. They will tell us what they need, and we find it for them.
RW:Is there any kind of certification needed to become an emergency manager?
Dale: States usually offer some sort of training that is often required within that particular state for employment as a city/county-based emergency manager. The International Association of Emergency Managers has a certification program that is voluntary.
RW:What types of messages do EMs use EAS for?
Dale: Any sort of notice that using normal communication methods would not be fast enough notification. It’s for use when we believe if people don’t receive word they could die of be seriously injured. It could be an evacuation notice for a hazardous materials leak or a wildfire. We use press releases and social media for day to day communication but EAS would be for life or death communication. It’s the next level.
RW: What components of emergency alerting do EMs typically use?
Dale: The one most people are familiar with is EAS for radio and TV on the broadcast side. It’s the scroll on the TV screen and the radio broadcast interruption. That only utilized for emergencies.
More and more, we also utilize the cell phone as part of the Wireless Emergency Alert System, or WEA. The advantage of that is no one has to sign up for it. We push it out, and if you are within the geographic area, you will get it. The disadvantage is that it is very short. You can’t put any links or images in the alert. We have up to 90 characters total, which is not a lot of notification, but it is a blanket notice.
Those are the two big disaster notification components that EMs will use.
RW: What are some of the best practices for EMs on how to communicate effectively with the public via EAS?
Dale: The first part of the message has to be who you are and you have to express that to the public. You are an authority as an emergency manager, and you want to put that through to the public. Then you say what the threat is and what the situation is. Then the next immediate thing has to be what the public needs to do. Whether they should shelter in place or evacuate. Or even bottle some water. The public needs those three components. If they don’t understand who you are, what the problem is and what they need to do then the public may not react to the information.
RW: And what are some of the mistakes emergency managers make in terms of communication?
Dale: The biggest issue I’ve seen is using it for non-life threatening emergency situations. I’ve heard of EAS being used for temporary road closures for a parade, or as a warning for windy conditions coming the next day. It has to be important — as in if people don’t get the message immediately they could die or be harmed. We talk about AMBER Alerts the same way. It has to be reserved for true emergencies.
RW: How often in your position are you sending out emergency messages to the public?
Dale: I’ve sent out a bunch of non-IPAWS [Integrated Public Alert and Warning System] messages through the years. The types of mass notifications we send non-IPAWS includes major road closures due to accidents, evacuations due to concerns from something like a fire where we are worried it’ll turn toxic but isn’t at that level yet. If it’s hazmat-related, then we’d use IPAWS. I’ve been here in this office [Ingham County Homeland Security and Emergency Management] for eight years, and I’ve yet to have to send out an IPAWS mass notification message.
RW:Is there such a thing as warning fatigue for the public?
Dale: Not necessarily warning fatigue as a whole, but if EAS is used enough for these non-emergency conditions, like school closings, then other things could be ignored. It becomes a tune out. People don’t want their favorite TV programs interrupted of the music on their radio for non-emergency announcements.
RW: What kind of training do emergency managers get on communicating effectively with the public?
Dale: Formally, there is very little to none. There are some FEMA online training courses on mass notification that a person has to go through before using the system, but that really consists of clicking some “yes” boxes. That’s one of my biggest concerns in the field … the lack of training in communications. Not only do we not teach EMs how to communicate effectively and concisely, there literally is no way to test a message, especially a wireless alert, before you send it. Another factor is we just don’t send emergency messages very often.
RW: You’ve said elsewhere that EAS alerting for EMs is far from intuitive. What do you mean by that?
Dale: It’s really a down-the-line issue for us. When I send an EAS message I do not know which radio or TV stations are going to carry it. Some stations put everything on but some stations don’t. It’s the same thing with wireless emergency alerts. When we send those out we don’t know exactly where it is going to go. We don’t get a list of the exact towers that are going to push that message out. We get an approximation map but that’s it. I think at times the technology side just hasn’t kept up.
Dale at the weather map for WLNS(TV) in Lansing in his days as a meteorologist.
RW: What do EMs think of broadcasters and the EAS role they fill?
Dale: I think it has really changed the past 10 years or since I have worked in emergency management. A lot of EMs have police or fire backgrounds and so I think the relationships were contentious at times. Now I think we see it more of a partnership. I know I do. We know that despite all the tools we have we cannot push emergency information out and that we need broadcast partners. In Michigan, we are meeting currently with many broadcasters here to review EM policy and EAS messaging to maintain those relationships, but that varies state by state. We do understand more and more broadcasters are automated and that we may not find anyone home if we call at certain times.
RW: What are some good talking points to begin discussions between broadcasters and the emergency management community?
Dale: It would be phenomenal if we heard more often from broadcasters. We’d like to know how we can help broadcasters. In some states broadcasters can now qualify for first informer credentials. That’s something we can help with. Often times we know of the broadcast stations in our areas but we don’t have those personal relationships in many cases.
RW:Bad audio quality bugs radio broadcasters. How should EAS audio quality issues be addressed?
Dale: I think it has improved greatly. The systems that are deployed now to EMs do auto-voice or in some cases have a microphone to record a message. It’s the content of that message that is the most important thing. I think steps have been taken to address poor-sounding audio.
RW: What things did you learn from working in the media that helps you today communicate effectively as an emergency manager?
Dale: To tell the story with as little technical information as necessary to get the message across. When I was a TV meteorologist, as much as I wanted to tell people about synoptic lows and mesoscale highs, they don’t need to know that. So from that we now know condensing a message down is best. If a toxic chemical spill occurs it’s probably not that important to tell people right away what kind of chemical it is but rather what they need to do next and the steps to take to fix it.
RW:What’s coming next to the world of emergency alerting?
Dale: Social media is changing things a bit. We really thought Facebook was going to be the next big thing, and then they changed the algorithm so when we push things out not everyone sees it. It depends on people sharing it. I think Twitter has looked at it. But broadcast remains the backbone of EAS along with the new wireless alerts.