From Galain President Rick Wimberly’s Blog “Alerts and Notifications: Best Practices For Emergency Notification Programs”

in Emergency Management Magazine

There’s a brouhaha in the Denver area over how the Adams County Sheriff’s Office is using its automated notification system. A local television station, CBS4, says the county has been using its emergency alert phone system for notifying the public about standard community meetings, perhaps for political gain for a sheriff’s employee running for office.

CBS4 quoted several law enforcement and public safety officials from out-of-state who said they’ve never heard of a law enforcement agency using the system to notify the public of nonemergency meetings. The station quoted a local resident saying she was frightened when she received a notification for, what turned out to be, a relatively routine community meeting. She said the notifications were “a misuse of power and taxpayer money.” However, at the same time, she said the meeting was interesting and informative.

So, that begs the question, if it’s an interesting and informative meeting, why shouldn’t automated notification systems be used to make residents aware of it? After all, it’s only a phone call.

No doubt about it, if the sheriff’s office was using the system to give a candidate political gain, that’s wrong. The sheriff’s office says it was not. This is not for me to judge, but if the meeting was going to give important and interesting public safety information, was that wrong?

No doubt, many will say “yes.” I’m not so sure myself. Certainly, if the system is used too much, it will impair its impact for emergency notifications. But, if the use is not excessive, the message makes the intent of the meeting clear (no need to frighten residents), and the meeting has important and interesting information, what’s so bad about it?

If you think it will dilute the impact when an emergency occurs, consider the fact that people generally will not take protective action because they’ve received a phone call alone. They need confirmation from a second source; research makes this clear. And the confirmation can come from any variety of sources, some of the most effective being the sources they use on a daily basis (radio, TV, neighbors, etc.). So, perhaps it’s an over-reaction that receiving a telephone call about a local meeting will dilute a telephone emergency notification.

Don’t get me wrong, these systems can be misused. But since it’s such a challenge to educate the public about important and interesting public safety information, why not call them to let them know about it?