Several conversations in the last couple of weeks with public safety officers (police and response managers mostly) have led me to conclude that the impact of Virginia Tech is spreading from college campuses to local government officials. I predicted here, shortly after the VT tragedy, that if students expect instant multi-mode communication from those responsible for their safety, will Joe Blow on the street be far behind. Turns out the answer is about 12 months behind. Officials are thinking about and planning how to more quickly, efficiently and effectively notify any and all citizens who want to be in whatever form they choose.
Notification companies continue to proliferate, merge, move and introduce new advanced communication technology. This is great but it also is very clear that the fundamental message about this they we have consistently tried to communicate is more appropriate than ever: Notification is not communication. Sending a 140 character text message only starts a process–it does not end it. If you cannot instantly follow that text message up with comprehensive communication management–push, pull and interactive–you have created a hungry beast that you will fail to feed. And the beast will eat you alive.
According to this story in CNN, the federal government is about to launch a new nationwide emergency text alerting system. It depends on the cooperation of cell phone providers which looks like they will support it, and it requires and “opt out” not an opt-in for the cellphone subscribers–which gets away from the problem that universities were having with small opt-in response.
Hmmm–wonder what this will do to the nation’s cell traffic in an event of an emergency? Will anyone be able to make a cellphone call? And who is going to sue whom if some get the message and others don’t. Welcome feds, to the wonderful world of emergency text messaging.
While I predicted that after Virginia Tech, the demand for instant notification on the part of all citizens within communities would grow rapidly, I must admit I did not anticipate any federal agency trying to take this frog type leap. Not sure it is viable or practical as most situations are localized–not immediately national. And that includes major terrorist events. It would have to take one heck of a threat to scare the bejesus out of everyone at once–even if technically you could do it. What it does show is that the demand for instant and direct communication is pressuring those with responsibility to come up with innovative ways to meet that demand. And that is the real lesson for all emergency managers and crisis communicators. How will you meet the demand for instant and direct information?