A new “age” of alerting is coming. It will help address questions about how we make sure people are alerted regardless of who they area, where they are and what they’re doing.
We believe there have been three ages in the evolution of alerting:
- Broadcast/Siren Age
- Channel vs Channel Age
- System of Systems Age
The first age began in the ’50s when the Conelrad system was launched to use tones to activate alerts on radio, TV stations and sirens. Conelrad was also designed to transmit signals to trick enemy aircraft. Through a number of variations, Conelrad evolved into what we now know as the Emergency Alert System, which still uses tones to activate radio and TV stations. (If it’s used to trick enemy aircraft these days, we’re not aware of it.)
The Broadcast/Siren Age lasted a long time. It wasn’t until the early 2000s before alerting started to change. The impetus was when GIS digital maps made it possible to send telephone landline calls to homes and businesses in specific geographic areas. Seeing an opportunity, other forms of alerting began to appear such as texting, email, desktop alerts and early-stage apps. We call this the Channel vs Channel age, a time when there was significant discussion, even argument, over which channel was best.
During the Channel vs Channel age, a movement was brewing that would put a near end to the debating. The movement focused around an argument that an alerting standard was needed that would help multiple alerting systems work together in a system-of-systems. As movements always do, the push for an alerting standard started with a small group of determined folks, then spread to much larger and larger groups. Eventually even competitors in the alerting industry were working together to promote the Common Alerting Protocol.
The tipping point toward widespread adoption didn’t occur until the late 2000s when FEMA announced it would use CAP for the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) and the big alert messaging switch IPAWS was building. Now, CAP is commonplace. It’s used at federal, state and local levels. And, there’s very little argument over one alerting channel working better than another; most of us accept the premise of multiple systems working together. We call this the System of Systems Age, our current stage in the evolution of alerting.
So what’s next? Although alerting has improved dramatically, especially in the last 10 years, significant gaps remain. We still miss people when we alert, or fail to give them the two sources of alerts they seem to need before they take action. We’re challenged by ever-changing communications preferences, and a much more mobile world. We still haven’t figured out strong ways to alert people with certain disabilities, or those with limited English proficiency. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
We think we’re on the cusp of a new age that will help fill the gaps so that people are alerted no matter who they are, where they are and what they’re doing. We call this the new age of Ubiquitous Alerts — alerts everywhere. It’s not far-fetched. In fact, the pieces are in place. They need to be connected.
There’s a little-known capability within IPAWS called the All Hazards Feed. In effect, the feed delivers alerts created by local, state and federal officials to a location on the Internet. Those alerts can be picked up by communications channels that may have been set up for other purposes, but could be used for alerts.
Quick story: At a Christmas party, I was showing the infographic we had just produced about the Evolution of Alerting to a good friend who works with alerts for a state agency. We were overheard by a woman who was intrigued and wanted to hear more. As it turns out, she works for a large company on a team that had been trying to figure out about how they could add alerts to their communications channels, including 900 websites and digital signs all over the country. We showed her how she could enter into a memorandum of understanding with IPAWS, and distribute alerts through their channels.
We often hear keepers of communications channels express a desire to use their channels for alerting. And, the Internet-of-things makes the concept even more powerful (and ubiquitous). At a recent meeting in DC, we joked about how alerts could be sent to refrigerators via the All Hazards Feed. (I guess the fridge light would start flashing when an alert was issued.)
The main thing that needs to happen to move us to the next age is to get people talking about it. Local public safety could talk with people in their communities who control communications channels. Channel owners could reach out to local public safety and FEMA IPAWS. More organizations with national communications channels could come forward. Progressive communities could take leadership and show us all how this can work. Here’s a YouTube video that explains further.
Perhaps we can all work together to start a movement to make Ubiquitous Alerts a reality.