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Development of Guidance for Community-Wide Public Alerts in Emergencies

Summary

Currently, no federal, state, or local guidance or requirements exist that standardize community-wide emergency communication systems, which has resulted in different systems and operating practices from one U.S. municipality to another. Therefore, as part of the NIST Joplin Investigation, NIST recommended the development of national codes, standards, and/or guidance for the creation and dissemination of clear, consistent, and accurate emergency communications for tornadoes (Recommendation #13 in the report). Emergency communication includes both alerts and warnings, since alerts are meant to grab people’s attention, and warnings provide information on the nature of the emergency and what actions people should take. During the May 2011 tornado event, the provision of well-understood alerts along with clear, consistent and accurate warning information could have decreased the public’s confusion, as well as their response time to reach a place of safety. The lead organization for Recommendation #13 is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Per NFPA’s request, NIST will work with NFPA 1600, Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity/Continuity of Operations Programs and NFPA 1616, Standard for Mass Evacuation, Sheltering and Re-entry Programs to develop guidance that can eventually be considered for inclusion in the body of the standard. Technical Committees for NFPA 1600 and 1616 are looking to NIST to contribute to the standards, both of which currently include an annex submitted by NIST on emergency communications.   Funding for this project will be used to compile current research, documentation, and guidance on alerts and warnings for communities, with a focus on social media and mobile technologies. 

Description

Objective - To support communities in the use of public alerting and warning systems in emergencies.

What is the new technical idea? The NIST Technical Investigation of the May 22, 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado shed light on the negative consequences that can result from the dissemination of conflicting, inconsistent, and confusing information provided via a multiplicity of information sources before and during a tornado event. Therefore, as part of the Investigation, NIST recommended the development of national codes, standards, and/or guidance for the creation and dissemination of clear, consistent, and accurate emergency communications for tornadoes. The lead organization for this Joplin Recommendation is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Per NFPA’s request, and in conjunction with NFPA’s Fire Protection Research Foundation, NIST is working with NFPA 1600, Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity/Continuity of Operations Programs and NFPA 1616, Standard for Mass Evacuation, Sheltering, and Re-entry Programs to develop guidance, that can eventually be considered for inclusion in the body of the standard. NFPA 1600 and NFPA 1616 have created multiple task groups, in which NIST participates, related to emergency communication and the use of social media in disasters. Since inception of this project, NIST has developed annexes for both NFPA 1600 and 1616 that include research and guidance from Kuligowski and Omori (2014) (i.e., alerting and warning guidance for building emergencies), and Kuligowski and Wakeman (2017) (i.e., the effective use of outdoor siren systems in community-wide disaster events). To best serve NFPA and provide guidance on alerting and warning systems for communities in times of disasters, this project focuses on three main topics: 1) the use of outdoor siren systems as alerts; 2) the use of “short messages” as alerts provided via social media and other short message service (SMS) platforms, and 3) the use of social media for warning in disaster response and providing updates during disaster recovery. Each topic will be described in further detail, below.

First, research, guidance and eventual standards are needed for the use of outdoor public siren systems as alerts in an emergency. Even though FEMA has published guidance to aid public officials in determining requirements for outdoor siren systems, many U.S. communities, even within the same state or region of a state, create and disseminate siren alerts for tornadoes in different ways. For example, sirens may be used for different intensity levels or types of disasters, follow different activation procedures, and/or incorporate different sounds or sounding patterns for the alerts. These differences can cause confusion among residents and visitors within a community when an emergency occurs. NIST will enhance the current FEMA guidance on siren systems, producing updated guidance on the provision of public alerts via siren systems, for possible incorporation in NFPA standard(s).

Second, research, guidance, and eventual standards are needed on the use of “short messages” provided via social media and other SMS platforms as alerts in an emergency. A “short message”, sent via Twitter or the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, provides very little in the way of information; and thus, has been considered more of an alert rather than a warning message. At present, and as was shown in the 2013 Newcastle-Moore tornado in Oklahoma [1], more and more community leaders (i.e., emergency managers, businesses, education, and healthcare), media outlets, and local weather agencies are using “short messages” as a means to alert the public of impending events. While NIST is aware of research on mobile alerts being funded currently by the Department of Homeland Security [2], no guidance on the usage of this technology exists and there has been little attempt to standardize these processes (other than the CAP data standards [3]). In turn, NIST will produce guidance on the provision of “short messages”, for eventual incorporation in NFPA standard(s).

Third, research, guidance, and eventual standards are needed on the use of social media for warning in disaster response and providing updates during disaster recovery. While previous research and guidance developed by NIST has focused on the creation and dissemination of warnings for buildings and building campuses (guidance that is included in NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code), this work primarily focused on the use of public address systems. Warnings provided by social media present many different possibilities (and limitations) for enhancing emergency communications, including the use of links, maps, videos, and graphics, as well as the methods that should be used to increase the saliency (and reposting) of the warning message. However, there is little guidance on these and other important topics. Also, the technical committee for NFPA 1600 has asked NIST to provide guidance on the use of social media specifically for the recovery period. During recovery, public information officers use social media frequently to post information on the location of and access to recovery-related resources (e.g., food, water, clothing, shelter, health services, and federal support), obtain information on who is “safe” and who is still missing, and provide updates on the status of disaster response and recovery efforts. Guidance is needed on how to best use this technology to increase public safety during response and resilience during recovery. Therefore, NIST will produce guidance use of social media for warning in disaster response and providing updates during disaster recovery for eventual incorporation in NFPA standard(s).

What is the research plan? NIST will develop guidance for communities on the creation and provision of public alerts and warnings using outdoor siren systems, short message platforms, and social media, for inclusion in NFPA 1600 and 1616.

In FY16, NIST produced an interim guidance document outlining the usage, activation procedures and sounds/sounding patterns for community-wide public siren systems. First, NIST identified current siren technologies and their capabilities in alerting and warning the public. Additionally, NIST collected existing research on how people, of all ages, abilities, and other important demographics, respond to alerting sounds and patterns and documented how this research aligns with current FEMA guidance. NIST also gathered information on the current methods that leading communities have adopted to standardize neighboring siren systems, such as the recent efforts in the Joplin area [4]. This included holding a workshop in conjunction with the Fire Protection Research Foundation to better understand the activities and guidance currently in place to standardardize neighboring siren policies. Additional study was performed to understand the positive and negative implications of providing accompanying information with siren alerts, since this is prevalent in some communities, and not in others.

In FY17, NIST produced guidance on the use of “short messages” provided via social media and other SMS platforms as alerts in an emergency. NIST identified current social media/mobile alerting technologies and their capabilities and limitations in alerting the public. NIST also performed a review of existing research related to public response to “short message” alerts, including Twitter and WEAs; compiled this research with previous efforts; and developed guidance on the most effective usage of “short message” platforms to alert the public of an emergency. NIST produced a final guidance document on the use of “short messages” provided via social media and other SMS platforms as alerts in an emergency.

Also, in FY17, NIST submitted a new annex (as public comment) entitled “Emergency Communications: Public Alerts and Warnings in Disaster Response” to NFPA 1600. In April 2017, the Technical Committee held their First Draft Meeting to review all NFPA 1600 Public Inputs and develop proposed revisions recommended by the committee. Based on revisions by NIST, the committee moved to accept the new annex as a First Revision to the Standard – also known as the First Draft.

In FY18, NIST will focus on producing guidance for communities on the use of social media for warning in disaster response and providing updates during disaster recovery. To do so, NIST will identify current social media technologies, their capabilities/limitations, and the ways in which they differ from other (older) emergency communications technologies for use in disaster response and recovery periods. NIST will also perform a review of existing research related to public response to warnings provided by social media as well as social media messages/updates during recovery; compile this research; and develop guidance on the most effective usage of social media tools for warning in disaster response and providing updates during disaster recovery. NIST will also stay engaged with NFPA 1600 and 1616 (just starting its revision cycle) to introduce new NIST research throughout the standard development cycles. 

Created May 20, 2016, Updated October 11, 2019