Standardizing Community Wide Public Alerts in Emergencies

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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 municipality to another. Therefore, as part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Technical Investigation of the May 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado, 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 and other emergencies. 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 Joplin 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.

As cited in the NIST Joplin Technical Investigation Report, the lead organization for the above NIST recommendation is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The Technical Committee for NFPA 1616, Standard for Mass Evacuation and Sheltering, has created an annex that will contain guidance on public alerts and warnings. NIST has previously developed guidance on public warnings for buildings and building campuses in the event of rapid-onset emergencies. This 3-year effort was principally funded by the Department of Homeland Security with additional support from industry sponsors and Advisory Services provided by the Foundation. This guidance focuses on the creation and dissemination of warning messages using basic communication modes (audible and/or visual technology), as well as how to test the effectiveness of these messages.  Example message templates are also provided for different types of emergencies, using different types of technologies. The Technical Committee for NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, has voted to include this guidance as annex material in the next edition of the Code.  

NIST is working closely with the Technical Committee for NFPA 1616 and NFPA 1600, Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity/Continuity of Operations Programs, to mine applicable existing knowledge from the previous work on public warnings. However, additional research and guidance development efforts are needed related to public alerts provided via outdoor siren systems and short message platforms.

Research goal: To develop guidance for communities on the creation and provision of public alerts – via outdoor sirens and "short messages" provided via social media (e.g. Twitter) and other short message platforms (e.g. wireless emergency alerts [WEA], for eventual standardization in NFPA codes and standards (i.e., NFPA 1616).

Download the project summary. (PDF)