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Alert as Needed

In mass-emergency communications, I champion an approach I call

"Alert as Needed".

The world has had numerous experiences with using modern communication systems in mass-emergency situations. The role these systems play, in a well-rounded emergency response, is unparalleled. It is as important for governments to have the ability to warn and guide their people en masse, as it is to maintain the military power to protect them.

The mass-emergency situations we consider here can range from devastating natural disasters to foreign military or terrorist attacks. And in several of these situations, it is possible to predict the threat before the emergency actually happens.

We can make ballpark estimates even multiple days before a natural disaster strikes. These predictions get stronger and more precise every hour leading up to impact, with the prediction of the exact area and intensity becoming almost certain even days before.

This was the case for Hurricane IAN and the NHC—the Natural Hurricane Center, which is responsible for hurricane predictions in the US. The NHC's weather sensors picked up the scent of a possible storm, 3.5 days before it actually happened.

In the NHC's official report about Hurricane IAN [1], it says:

"The tropical wave from which Ian developed was introduced in the Tropical Weather Outlook (TWO) with a low (<40%) 5-day probability of formation 84 h prior to genesis (Table 4). At 72 h prior to genesis, the system was first given a low 2-day chance of development, and the 5-day genesis probability was raised to the medium (40%–60%) category. A Special TWO was issued just before 1500 UTC 20 September, 63 h before genesis, where the 2- and 5-day probabilities of development were raised to the medium and high (>60%) categories, respectively. Finally, the 2-day probabilities were increased to the high category 54 h before development."

NHC Tropical Cyclone Report - Hurricane Ian (AL092022)

This means that they got wind of the storm way early, and the predictions that it would turn into a storm went up real fast after the first few hours, as the hurricane was forming very quickly.

If you wonder what the TWO is, it's what the NHC calls their web page, where they share info about the tropical cyclones they're tracking. You can see where the storms are on the map—one for Eastern Pacific, Central Pacific, and for the Atlantic Ocean—and whether there are any warnings issued by the NHC. You can see what's happening right now by following the link in reference one [2].

Today—which is July 23, 2023—it seems like there's a tropical storm brewing on the Atlantic Ocean, which got the name "Tropical Storm Don". Doesn't look like it'll impact anywhere, though…

Screenshot of the Tropical Wave Outlook (TWO) webpage from NHC's website[2].

Now that we've established our ability to predict, we can now talk about what we can do.

I call the time window between the first predictions and the disaster's effects being felt, "Future-Threat Communications". This is the time when you can get people to evacuate, or get them to shelter-in-place. This is the time you have to set up safe spaces, like the Superdome in Hurricane Katrina, which housed around 25,000 evacuees during the disaster.

Alerting the public early in Future-Threat Communications can understandably cause panic. This is part of an early response strategy: you have to weigh the odds and issue the alerts that are absolutely needed. You wouldn't want to issue an evacuation order the second the storm prediction pops up the tracking devices, but you could give a heads up. That's what the TWO is for, and many other communication technologies that can be used for this purpose, like an Emergency SMS service that people can sign up for, to get early NHC prediction alerts on their mobile phones.

Photos by `Irwin Thompson/The Dallas Morning News/AP` and `Michael Appleton/NY Daily News/Getty Images`

As the storm develops, and it becomes certain that it's going to be a devastating one, you need to start sending out evacuation warnings. A simple SMS or a scientific website won't do it this time... You need to bring out the big alerters. This means use loudspeakers, send broadcasts on radio and TV, and mobile warning systems. You can send CBC alerts to mobile phones (better known in the US as Amber Alerts). Use any means necessary to get people to move. This is when you risk causing panic to get your message across.

An early warning that causes panic might be the least of our worries: in many cases, evacuation orders and disaster warnings come too late.

This was a major flaw in the response for Hurricane Katrina. The public officials handled some preparations very badly. For example, the mandatory evacuation order from the Mayor of New Orleans came only 19 hours before landfall.

There is a book on Hurricane Katrina, that analyzes and evaluates everything that happened during the disaster. It is 357 pages long, and focuses on every aspect of the disaster. There are sections discussing the public officials' actions and decisions, regarding how they handled the evacuation efforts, or how they managed the communications in their cities; sections analyzing the weaknesses of the city's infrastructure against the flooding and winds, and what or who caused them to be the way they were; and about how the evacuation process was handled, by the army and by the police; and even some great assessments of how the communications were affected in the cities, including even figures for how many mobile network base stations had collapsed.

It was written by a commission selected by the US government. I found it to be adequately objective, and I think it's one of the most comprehensive studies on the subject. It's called "A Failure of Initiative" and can be found online for free, officially, in reference two [3].

Photo by `Marc Serota/Reuters`

As much as a well timed evacuation order can help save lives, it's also the harsh reality that many, many people don't have the means to evacuate. This situation occurs in every hurricane that happens in the US. To this day, when a new major hurricane is about to happen, you can find news reporting of people who choose to stay at home because it's too expensive to move.

So many people just don't have the means to pack up and leave. They have nowhere to go, or no car to go there with. In that case, there simply isn't a better shelter than the one they already have—their own house. They choose to shelter-in-place, even if an evacuation order is issued. Of course, some people live outside, and may not be able to find even that much shelter.

In that case, for a future-threat communication strategy, it's important to not overblow the situation. If a prediction is not a hundred percent, or the forecasted intensity is not big enough to warrant an evacuation, it might be a lot wiser to issue a lesser warning. A "heads-up" is a great way to make sure that if the need arises for people to evacuate, they will already be half ready to do it.

This NPR reporting [4] lists a few reasons why people may choose not to evacuate, and one of them, they say, is "storm fatigue". Imagine evacuating your home multiple times—Coastal America is, after all, storm country—but returning to a home that's not devastated but only damaged, having stacked up thousands of dollars in hotel and gas fees during the weeks stay outside... Wouldn't it seem wiser to shelter in place next time?

This is one of the reasons "Alert As Needed" is as important as it is—to properly assess the situation and follow the best course of action.

When you've decided on the course of action, you then need to reach as far as you are able to reach. Bring the information to all the people who need it.

There are so many communications systems that can help you do this. The diversity in communications systems allow you to pick the one that's best suited to your response.

However intense you choose the disaster response to be, there is a mobile communications system that can help you deliver your warnings. An SMS based "heads-up" system is great for early warnings and minor alerts, because they can carry long texts without being disruptive, while being able to reach all mobile phones in any region that's specified.

Cell Broadcast Calls (CBCs) are great for evacuation orders, because they get through to the user no matter what. Even if they're sleeping, it can wake them up. Even if their phone's on mute, it will play a sound. On top of this, the CBC won't be delayed because of network congestion. It has the ability to reach literally everyone, even the whole country, in the blink of an eye.

Properly using all communication systems is paramount, and the strategies to benefit the most from them come from many of our experiences with disasters in the past. It's a tried and tested lesson that communication is the key to saving lives.


[1]:National Hurricane Center, L. Bucci, L. Alaka, A. Hagen, S. Delgado, and J. Beven, “HURRICANE IAN,” AL092022, Apr. 2023. Accessed: May 22, 2023. [Online]. Available:

[2]“Atlantic 7-Day Graphical Tropical Weather Outlook,” Atlantic 7-Day Graphical Tropical Weather Outlook.

[3]A Failure of Initiative: Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina. 2006. doi: 10.1604/9780160754258.

[4]J. Franklin, “Some don’t evacuate, despite repeated hurricane warnings, because they can’t,” NPR, Sep. 28, 2022.




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