Category Archives: SMS text messaging

UCLA Emergency Manager's view on the need for multimode notifications

I was absolutely thrilled to come across this post by David Burns, CEM(r), Emergency Manager with UCLA. It shows the growing awareness of the limitations of SMS text messaging–it simply is not the panacea that so many in emergency management in universities seemed to think after Virginia Tech. Mr. Burn’s listing of the different modes of communication used today is more comprehensive than anything else I’ve seen.

Here are his comments as posted to the IAEM Discussion board:

People nowadays are connected to wide variety of technology to share and
gather information:

– they listen to the radio (AM and FM), including NOAA weather alerts;
– they listen to satellite radio (XM & Sirius;
– they use social networking sites (friend’s lists);
– they listen to podcasts;
– they use the Internet;
– they watch television (cable, over-the-air, and satellite);
– they text each other and receive text messages (SMS);
– they listen to amateur radio and public safety scanners;
– word of mouth, etc.

Our alert systems need to be just as diverse, flexible and adaptable to
the means by which people receive and exchange information.  With the
incidence of campus violence becoming a popular subject, college campus
administrators and campus emergency managers are looking to improve how
they communicate with their campus communities.   Because funding is
always an issue, especially in the surge of an economic slowdown, money
is the driving issue.

The solution in improving communication is money-based as in where do
you get the biggest bang for the buck?   In the year that has passed,
many SMS text-messaging vendors misrepresented the real-world
capabilities of text-messaging system to many of the folks who purchased
a product.   Now they have a resource, but with extreme limitations and
a broad definition of what successful delivery is? – from minutes to

Every resource we have in our mass notification arsenal all have
limitations.   Anyone who relies on just one single system is probably
foolish to believe that any one resource can be the “end-all, be all”
resource for a community as diverse as a college campus.   In fact, I
would suggest that you are actually increasing your risk and liability
for litigation by reliance on any single system.  Money drives this
logic, as people “settle” for what they can afford, knowing it will not
work, but are willing to roll the dice to have something tangible in
place, something to deflect potential criticism.

I spoke with a Virginia Tech administrator in June 2007, two months
after the massacre.  The one thing that I heard, and have listened to is
to “never settle for what you can’t afford.”   Their after-action report
was clear; many of their systems became overwhelmed because of the
tragedy as a result of geography (rural – limited capabilities), limited
systems, network and system bandwidth limitations, coupled with
worldwide demand for information is recipe to bring any local system(s)
crashing down.

SMS is only one resource.  It has severe limitations.   Use of SMS has
increased significantly over the past 5 years, especially in the past 14
months.  Technology advances make many systems obsolete within a couple
of years.  If everyone is using a system, increased use increases the
likelihood of failure in an emergency.

We currently use a SMS/text resource on our campus.   66% of the
students have refused to sign up despite regular marketing campaigns,
meaning that investment in such systems have limited success.   SMS
nationwide is rejected by the students themselves based on a 30% percent
sign-up average.   This issue alone makes the use of SMS limited in its
success by the sheer apathy of the student community itself.

We currently utilize 15 independent system resources to alert students,
faculty, and staff of an emergency on campus, and have yet to achieve
100% coverage because of the number of systems people are attached to or
not attached to on a daily basis.   We will continue to add resources to
increase our outreach.

Be well,

David S. Burns, CEM(r)
Emergency Manager

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
Office of the Associate Vice Chancellor
General Services / Emergency Management Office

History's take on Virginia Tech and its impact on crisis management–and the world

They say that journalism is the first draft of history. This qualifies as journalism, then, but with an eye to the changes that this event will make in our world, and particularly the world of crisis communication. I’ll present random ideas in bullet form.

1) The media, being in the infotainment business, continues its insistence on finding someone to blame.

The person who is lying dead on the floor with a self-inflicted fatal wound does not qualify. In this case, it was the administration for “failing” to notify everyone. To the point where President Steger was asked if he would resign. Outrageous. Only with the benefit of hindsight can anyone fault the decision that was made. And to apply 20/20 hindsight and find fault on that basis is highly unfair and can only be justified in the light of the insistence that someone has to be at fault.

2) For every action that grabs the media’s and world’s attention, there has to be an extreme overreaction.

As I write this I have been informed that dozens if not hundreds of schools are in lockdown. Entirely predictable. A car backfiring within three miles of any university or school campus is going to result in a lockdown. That is until cooler heads prevail, the costs of such actions are analyzed, and administrators become as afraid of being accused of being lockdown crazy as they are now afraid of being accused of what VT administrators are accused of.

3) SMS will be on everyone’s “have to have” list for crisis communication.

This brought the attention of the world as nothing else has in my 20 plus years of crisis communication, of the need to reach people quickly in ways they can be reached. Phone notification vendors (of which we are one–offering it as part of a comprehensive solution) are going crazy trying to capture the feeding frenzy of buyers of emergency notifications services. Some of the strategies and approaches are stomach turning, but that is another issue. The point is, the world of emergency notification and crisis communication is forever altered by this event.

4) Rapidly changing modes of communication.

A few days ago I would guess that most professional communicators were only vaguely aware of Facebook–and certainly did not consider these social media sites as a viable means of communication. Let alone, a replacement for email. Let the record show, I blogged on this several weeks ago. Now, many are looking at these sites in a whole new way including looking at how they need to be incorporated into a comprehensive emergency and crisis management solution.

5) Don’t expect too much in responsible or moral thinking from the media.

This goes to the issue of NBC playing the video. I don’t want to be as harsh as this may sound. The reality is that someone somewhere with a website would have gotten this, it would go on YouTube soon, and it would be all over. And NBC would have lost a scoop opportunity of enormous proportions. It would have happened. Do not doubt it. Our world is brutally transparent and the beheadings in Iraq have demonstrated. So what would you have done if you were an executive. Your future is at stake, your ability to draw an audience is being hurt everyday as the compelling stuff is found on the Internet. I will not judge them. But I will say that the overarching economic realities need to be kept in mind as people set their expectations for media decisions.

6) What becomes possible, becomes expected, then demanded.

Personally, I think this is the biggest long term outcome–and particularly for us in crisis communication technology. A few days ago, few knew about SMS text messaging as an alternative means available to reach people in a life-threatening event. Now it is known. It is known that it is possible, even inexpensive. Every university in the world is scrambling to answer the question as to how they would reach students in this event. But, this does not just apply to students. A university is, after all, a community. It has public safety officers, headed by a main administrator responsible for the welfare of those in his or her care. Sort of like the mayor of a town or city and the public safety officers. I suspect that many people will soon start to ask the question–if a university can reach all students by cell phones and text messaging, why shouldn’t I be alerted if there is a rape, or murder, or bomb explosion, or toxic release, or some other health and life event taking place in my town, my city, my neighborhood?

When Federal Express announced you could get a package shipped across town or across the country in a day, absolutely, positively, it changed the expectations forever about package shipment. I predict this event will change the expectations forever about emergency notifications for everyone. It seems inevitable.

I have already had conversations with a fire chief and a head of communications for a county in this area about announcing to the community that they can get text alerts about life threatening situations by logging their cell phones into a public safety websites. The technology these departments have is already in place. The only thing missing is to let the community members know it is possible. But once they understand it is possible, they will demand it. That is what I predict.

Finally, this interview by PRWeek with one of the media responders gives a very good idea what the pressure of dealing with the media frenzy in this event was like.