This Emergency was Brought to You By No One

Recently the US underwent a test of the emergency broadcast system. It didn’t go so well.

The long, monotone tests from my childhood have been replaced by short, bursting digital tones meant to jolt us out of our fantasy leagues or cat videos, but they still pack the punch of uncertainty. While the worries of my childhood have been replaced by the worries of my adulthood, we haven’t really changed the way we approach a national warning system. We’ve chosen to apply an analog TV solution to a digital need.

We interrupt this program…

Believe it or not, once upon a time there were barely 13 channels on TV and a limited selection of things to watch. What’s more we were watching it all live as it was broadcast. Imagine having to explain the concept of live television to your 5 year old and you get the idea of where I’m headed. If an alert didn’t appear during the A-Team or Growing Pains, my family never knew.

Once VCRs came about, we could frighten ourselves the next day when the alert popped up, but that was just the beginning of the problem. Radio isn’t a panacea either since it suffers from an inability to rewind or record, which again wouldn’t help in an emergency.

With a very important message…

Gizmodo exposed the most gaping fault of this new/old alert system. It ignores social media and in doing so does a huge disservice to the country. In the 19 years since I hopped online I’ve felt more connected than ever before. I consume cloud services for my email and voicemail. I watch my videos and I manage my money online. I do everything on the Internet so when the next great disaster happens I’ll get a minimum of 3 notifications from Facebook alone.

But I’m not everyone. In fact, most of the world is walking around with the one device that was ignored during this test; the mobile phone. It comes with multiple ways to notify you, but the most basic is underused by authorities. Another recent shooting was handled far more adroitly this time around by using mobile texting. Sure, you can download an app for your phone to keep you informed, but you must remember to use it.

In the event of an emergency…

My crystal ball has been broken for some time now and I didn’t see the Internet coming. Neither did the EBS (Emergency Broadcasting System) and it must move quickly to address the needs of local communities or national efforts.

The Cloud is uniquely positioned to address this need. SMS gateways abound today and interfacing with them is as easy as ever. They can be integrated with applications built using PaaS (Platform as a Service) to provide a fast, elegant solution to the problem.

Enterprising developers can produce mash-ups that insert emergency notifications into their applications where it makes sense. Imagine a Salesforce Automation application that warns your traveling sales associate to pull over for severe weather.

Consider a message popping up on your mobile while you shop your local home improvement store warning you to buy rock salt, all triggered by an alert from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

At a minimum social networking services should hook into official warning systems and produce banners that trumpet important news.

Whether we’re talking Facebook, mobile apps, or streaming services like Netflix and Spotify, it’s obvious we need to address these new information streams. Companies that command a large number of eyeballs can use services that run in the Cloud on PaaS or SaaS and disseminate the message to a broader audience.

That way when the word is given the message will be received.

What are your thoughts? What role do you feel social media networks should play in an emergency? What is the best way to notify people of impending dangers? Also, how do we determine what is “an emergency” so that we don’t get so many messages that they lose their impact? We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.
Jeff Morgan Lead Product Marketing Manager AT&T About Jeff