Emergency managers face uphill battle in improving public awareness of ECS

After three years of examining the public’s attitudes towards emergency communications systems (ECS), life safety systems manufacturer Federal Signal decided this year to take a look at some of the challenges currently facing emergency managers. Conducted earlier this summer by Zogby, the 2013 Federal Signal Public Safety Survey consisted of online responses from 200 emergency management decision makers nationwide.

John Von Thaden, vice president and general manager, alerting and notification systems at Federal Signal, said that this year’s survey really highlights the obstacles faced by public safety officials in their implementation of ECS solutions.

“Well, I think we can draw two overriding conclusions,” Von Thaden explained. “One is that the challenges emergency mangers are facing in reaching their community continue to increase. We think these fall into the two areas of what we sometimes call communication layers… but we’re also finding what cannot be better describe than citizens apathy towards public safety. These two challenges continue to increase and yet, even in the face of budget cuts and resource shortages, these officials really are doing the things that the public has told us in other surveys are things that should raise their awareness and their own preparedness.”

According to Von Thaden, looking at the challenges faced by emergency managers was a natural progression for the company’s annual survey.  

“After looking at Americans’ concerns about public safety and realizing that we were certainly making some assessments and conclusions about the challenges related to emergency managers based on info from our surveys…. we wanted to do some validation,” said Von Thaden. “We sought some information about the challenges that emergency managers were facing to see how that correlated to the state of Americans’ views about public safety and I think we found a lot of interesting correlations.”

While 22 percent of respondents said that apathetic community members remain one of their biggest hurdles, a slightly larger portion of emergency managers (28 percent) felt that their greatest challenge was dealing with the various communications preferences of residents.  For example, although most respondents said that they use radio (82 percent) and television warnings (71 percent) respectively, there is still room for growth when it comes to social media as only 55 percent said that they currently use Facebook to communicate during an actual emergency. In fact, only 31 percent reported using Twitter during emergency events.

“One of the conclusions we’ve drawn in the past is that advances in communication technology haven’t made (emergency communications) easier.  In fact, they’ve made it more complex,” said Von Thaden. “Citizens’ preferences about where they expect to receive information and even where they proactively go to seek additional information are greatly varied, so emergency managers really need to develop this layered approach to communications. We’re finding that many are, but the challenge with that is two-fold: one is the time it takes to implement these processes and the other is just the variation or myriad of choices that they need to make in order to do that.”

Von Thaden added that public safety officials could work with people in their community that have a strong social media following as a way to get the word out during an emergency. Previous surveys have shown that online resources such as educational videos and forums would be ways to boost awareness and, according to Von Thaden, between 65 percent and 70 percent of emergency managers are using these types of methods to reach citizens.

Not surprisingly, 75 percent of emergency managers said that the biggest barrier they faced in updating their emergency communications systems was budget constraints. Additionally, 53 percent of respondents reported that they needed additional funding to more effectively communicate with people in the community.

“Emergency managers continue to rely very heavily upon grant funding to support the deployment of new systems and we certainly see that becoming increasingly difficult to access those funds,” he said. “Emergency managers have told us that they would like to do more layered communication systems, but their challenged not only in the operational side, but even to have the ability to manage the evaluation and the deployment of those systems, which becomes a great inhibitor to support a system ongoing. “

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