Weaknesses of US Emergency Communication Strategy in Terms of Future Threat Communication
The USA is a country comprising many states which are home to a wide range of climates. They face many natural disasters: such as hurricanes, blizzards, forest fires, heat waves, and flash floods. As telecommunications technologies develop, they’ve been adopted as essential tools in the fight against such disasters.
In the past, some disasters turned into catastrophes, as the defenses against them failed. In the years that passed since, technologies and laws improved, and better defenses have been built. Yet, there is still more to be done.
What are the weaknesses of the US' emergency communication strategy?
The weak points of an emergency communications strategy get exposed when faced with disaster situations. When building communications systems for the future, targeting these weaknesses is still a challenge to be met. Telecommunications companies and governments actively need to keep them in mind as they construct new systems. These weaknesses are:
Lack of better future-threat communication strategies,
Not using the wide range of available mobile alerting technologies,
Low frequency in alerting pre-emergencies,
Lack of integration between alerting networks and government agencies,
Not automating and integrating alerting systems,
Not Developing disaster-resistant communications systems.
In this article, we will focus on how the future threat communication strategies of the USA may be improved, with a focus on real-life examples that were experienced in Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ian.
Today, the United States of America utilizes an emergency communications system called The Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) Platform. The platform, which had its beginnings in the late 2000s, is used to send out warning messages to mobile phone users in cases of natural and social emergencies. In addition to incorporating already existing mobile alerting systems for criminal activities, like the Amber Alerts system used to send warnings related to child abductions, the platform can also carry natural disaster alerts and other mass emergency warnings. The system sends these warnings in the form of Cell Broadcast Calls (CBCs), which are mobile phone warning notifications sent by service providers to users in a specific area. The mobile phones receive a warning text accompanied by a loud, disturbing call .
The Wireless Emergency Alerts platform (WEA) was established as part of the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act passed by the US Congress in 2006  , . The act passed a year after Hurricane Katrina happened in 2005. As it is recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration , , this hurricane has been the costliest to ever hit the US, at $192 billion in damage, causing 1,833 fatalities. This event was also infamous for how insufficient the response and preparation against the disaster was. The actions taken by the local government and responsible military officials drew a lot of criticism from the public and from other officials. After the catastrophe, the US government elected a commission to investigate what went wrong during Hurricane Katrina. The commission wrote a report, which was then published as a book, titled "A Failure of Initiative''. The book describes the response to the hurricane as "a national failure... At every level - individual, corporate, philanthropic, and governmental ." One major reason for the failure of the response to the disaster was the breakdown in communications. Communication among rescue teams, the government, and disaster victims failed during the catastrophe. Communication regarding proper evacuation was also lacking before the catastrophe. This was in part due to the local government officials involved, as stated in the commission's report, and also due to the failure of the telecommunications systems, which so many depended on. This encouraged the passing of legislation such as the WARN Act, and the establishment of better emergency communication systems like the WEA.
However, even though it's been established after such catastrophes, the WEA still does not utilize the extent of technology available to cover all grounds of emergency communication.
One of the primary factors that resulted in the great loss of life in Hurricane Katrina, was the deadly situation the people had to face, who could or did not evacuate, and remained in the disaster-affected zones. A lot of people, many of whom were immobilized and in hospitals, or didn't have the means to evacuate, faced the hurricane where they were, without proper protection or supplies. They had to either be rescued where they were, like the people in hospitals or in their homes, or provided for in the designated safe spaces set up by the officials.
The commission's report tells us that several telecommunications systems collapsed during the hurricane. In such cases, it is essential for companies and governments to work together to construct robust communications systems, which will be able to survive such catastrophes. And even with such precautions in place, telecommunications companies should be required to offer roaming services, when disasters cause their networks to fail. With the service known as disaster roaming, users can effortlessly access alternative communication service providers in the event of partial or complete network failures by their primary provider. This is vital during natural disasters in order to keep communications services up
- between rescuers and disaster victims,
- between rescue teams,
- between disaster victims and the government, for official dispatches and instructions.
Since 2016, the WEA incorporates disaster roaming, as part of the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework, signed between leading telecom companies in the US .
Another factor that contributed to the destructiveness of the disaster was the poor evacuation of residents before the hurricane. This was due to many factors, many of them organizational, as is explained in the commission's report. However, more can be done in terms of communications in order to help with evacuations in case of a future disaster. An important technology that can be incorporated into the WEA is E-SMSc. As of right now, the WEA is limited to CBCs, which are issued a short time before an emergency.
By adopting the E-SMSc, the WEA can extend the range of its alerting capabilities, which may prove to be essential for an improved future emergency communications strategy.
Emergency SMSC is a warning system that allows mobile providers to send users warning texts through SMS. It can target specific groups of users, like emergency responders, or users in a general area, like residents of a disaster-affected zone. This functionality is used to warn people of an upcoming disaster. It is also used to provide post-disaster communication. In case of a future threat, E-SMSc is used to send information about how to prepare for the threat: if a hurricane is upcoming, it can inform people about where the government-designated safe spaces are. For the post-emergency case, E-SMSC is used to inform people where they can go to receive aid or deliver official statements that can dispel misinformation that may cause panic in the public.
The CBC is not well suited for this application because a CBC is designed to alert. The informative text of a CBC is accompanied by a loud and disturbing call. As such, it is not appropriate to send CBCs in certain cases. In disaster situations, it is important to have a tool that can reach out to people without causing panic. By using E-SMSc, it is possible to provide information while avoiding unnecessary alarms.
How can E-SMSc be used in the US Emergency Communication Strategy for Future Emergency Communication?
One of the worst natural disasters that the US regularly faces is hurricanes. Each year, multiple storms sweep through the country, affecting multiple states and islands. According to the National Weather Service, five large hurricanes strike the US coast on average in three-year time periods . They are among the most economically damaging catastrophes too: in 2022, Hurricane Ian is estimated to have caused over $100 billion in damage , .
It is vital to properly evacuate residents of a city before a big, named hurricane makes an impact. When it becomes certain that a city will be hit, the local government issues an evacuation order. Any who can evacuate does so by their own means, and some do it with help from the government. Those who can't evacuate, or choose not to, either stay where they are or take shelter in evacuation centers. The army and the police deliver aid before, during, and after the hurricane.
A major factor that delays a local government from issuing an evacuation order is uncertainty. As seen in the commission’s report , local governments delayed issuing an obligatory evacuation order in part due to organizational failures, and in part due to their unwillingness, in case the hurricane didn’t end up impacting their regions. In any case, a hurricane impact zone can only be predicted with error. However, the general area where there will likely be an impact can be predicted fairly accurately days in advance.
The impact zone of a hurricane is called a prediction cone . In the US, the official scientific body that makes these predictions is the National Hurricane Center (NHC) . Statistics from the NHC show that a hurricane can be predicted to stay in its prediction cone around 60-70% of the time . In the Tropical Cyclone Track Error statistics seen in Figure 1, which is a five-year statistical average from the NHC, it can be seen that an error of 370 km (200 nmi) can be achieved for 67% of predictions made in a 120-hour forecast .
Tropical Cyclone Track Error Cumulative Distribution, retrieved from .
The NHC issues storm surge warnings when a tropical storm, a hurricane, heads for a region. However, not all warnings necessitate a total and obligatory evacuation of residents.
Hurricane IAN was a tropical storm that hit Florida last year and caused an estimated $114 billion in damage . In the official Tropical Cyclone Report written by the NHC after Hurricane IAN, there is a clear and detailed account of the storm surge warnings issued by the center, as the cyclone traveled across Florida.
As the storm moved on its path, the forecasted track did not coincide with the actual track of the storm. For some regions, even though there was no overlap of the tracks afterward, the forecast uncertainty before the storm passed necessitated a warning to be issued. As it is stated in the NHC report, "the track uncertainty during the warning phase warranted the issuance of the storm surge warning for this large area (north of Englewood) however, as only a small northward shift of the track could have caused extreme storm surge flooding in places that were dry during Ian ."
In such cases, an E-SMSC system can be set up as part of the WEA, that can be synchronized with the storm surge warnings of the NHC. It may allow for more frequent warnings, as an E-SMSC is easier for the recipients than a CBC. It can be sent even if the hurricane is not certain to affect those individuals, because it will not cause as much panic. The CBC can instead be reserved for issuing obligatory evacuation warnings, and all prediction warnings, such as storm surge warnings, can be handled by the E-SMSC.
Image that shows storm destruction in Hurricane IAN Credit: Max Olson, retrieved from .
Consequently, individuals can receive early risk warnings several days prior to a hurricane or any other natural disaster, rather than just a few hours beforehand. This advance notice empowers them to proactively prepare, devise comprehensive plans, and take necessary precautions. Throughout the duration, they will continue to stay informed, even if the risk of hurricanes forming in their area diminishes or vanishes altogether. Once the precise location of the hurricane's impact is determined, cellular broadcast public information and evacuation procedures come into action.
The importance of communications
As a wise academic once said, "most of the time, crisis situations turn out to be information and communication crises." The importance of communications in emergency preparedness and relief has been getting more and more attention. Around the world, governments are passing new laws and legislations, in unison with telecom companies that provide emergency communication services that did not exist before. These services prove to be life saving in times of disaster.
The US needs to improve its future threat communication strategies to better prepare for future disasters. Emergency alerting should be used more frequently in advance of a disaster, and they should be integrated with government agencies that manage such emergencies.
Like the US, automation and integration is vital for countries that regularly face natural disasters. Japan is a shining example of building nation-wide emergency communication services. Japan regularly faces many unpredictable or near-unpredictable natural disasters, like earthquakes or tsunamis, and it is essential for their systems to have instantaneity. Other countries who also face earthquakes, like Turkiye, are in the process of implementing the automated emergency communication technologies available.
Defne Telecom is devoted to providing the world with better emergency communications, and offer public warning solutions, such as CBC and E-SMSC services.
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