Study Reveals Top Emergency Communications Challenges

As mobile technologies and social media channels continue to penetrate Americans’ communications behaviors, emergency managers are working diligently to ensure emergency communications keep pace. This is one of the findings from the 2013 Federal Signal Public Safety Survey, which examines some of the greatest challenges currently faced by emergency managers. The survey, following on the heels of September’s National Emergency Preparedness Month, comes as recent tragedies in Yosemite National Park and Aurora, Colo., remind Americans of the unpredictable and devastating effects man-made and natural disasters can have.
Now in its fourth year, and conducted again by Zogby, the annual report has traditionally surveyed the general public on safety awareness and emergency preparedness attitudes and behaviors. For the first time, however, this year’s survey shifts the conversation by asking emergency managers about the most significant challenges they face and the measures they are taking to address them.
“Last year’s Federal Signal Public Safety Survey showed that complacency and a lack of safety awareness are common public perception when it comes to emergency preparedness and response,” said Joe Wilson, president of the Industrial Systems Division, Safety and Security Group at Federal Signal. “This year, we wanted to assess the complexity of the issues emergency managers face and uncover the actions they are taking to find effective solutions.”
Facing the Facts
As the technology landscape continues shifting, the American public’s communication methods are increasing and gradually becoming more mobile-oriented. The 2013 study showed that nearly one-in-three (28 percent) emergency managers identify the public’s varied communication preferences as the greatest challenge they face. These challenges include effectively reaching a growing, older population with many special language and other needs.  For those with hearing and vision impairments, physical limitations and varying debilities, communication preferences may extend beyond traditional landline phone calls and email, to include text messages and social media channels and more.
“The increase in the number of communication layers emergency managers are up against has drastically added to the complexity of developing an effective, all-encompassing communications program,” said Wilson. “Age, physical disabilities and cultural differences are human factors that they have always had to recognize and take into consideration, but rapid mobile and social media technology growth has only compounded the issue — making it not only challenging to reach community members wherever they are, but increasingly difficult to drive a sense of urgency.”
As communication preferences continue to change and diversify, emergency managers must consider a layered approach that can reach all community members effectively and efficiently. That includes not only enabling new technologies, but successfully integrating these with traditional communication methods in a way that drives citizens — of all ages, needs and communication preferences — to action.
Driving a Public Sense of Urgency
Community members trust emergency managers to provide them with the tools they need during an emergency, making it critical that they leave no stone unturned when it comes to effective communication. More than half of respondents (58 percent) trust local and regional government officials to ensure sufficient public safety standards, communication and planning, according to the 2012 Federal Signal Public Safety Survey.
The 2012 survey results found that less than one half (47 percent) of community members would take action based on a potential severe weather warning.  It comes as no surprise, then, that nearly one-in-four (22 percent) emergency managers said that apathetic community members are their greatest challenge, according to the 2013 study. In fact, the study found only 20 percent of emergency managers feel that their community members are very aware of existing alerting and notification systems in their area.
“An emergency manager’s goal is to generate 100 percent awareness among the community,” said Wilson. “It is critical that they not only ensure that families and community members have an emergency plan in place, but that they understand all of the possibilities for receiving real-time messages in emergency situations — from siren notifications, to a text message or email alert, and much more.”
In order to best reach community members, emergency managers need to consider the places where each of their citizens seeks information. As expected, one of the toughest challenges for emergency managers is the cost associated with new tools and equipment.  The 2013 survey found that for 75 percent of emergency managers, the greatest deterrent to updating emergency communication systems is their budget. Yet, there are many ways to interact with the public that are simple and cost effective, many of which emergency managers have already embraced. According to the 2013 Federal Signal Public Safety Survey:

81 percent are promoting their activities and programs at community events and meetings
72 percent are communicating with their community directly though emails, direct mail, and phone calls
67 percent are communicating with the public through a community website
The Need to Be More “Social”
New technology enables community-wide engagement and can help drive emergency responsiveness among citizens — often at the touch of a button. This presents new opportunities for emergency managers to expand their reach. Only 55 percent of emergency managers are currently using Facebook as part of their alerting and notification system, and three-in-ten currently are not providing educational tools through websites and social media.
“By evaluating modern technology, emergency managers can supplement communications plans with new ways to take a more comprehensive outreach approach and ultimately connect with more community members,” said Wilson.
For more information on the 2013 Federal Signal Public Safety Survey, visit

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