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Avoiding Alert Fatigue with Strategic Notifications

The inauguration of the U.S. president always requires vast preparation and a large security presence. The ceremony is one of a few American traditions that is designated as a National Special Security Event by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and overseen by the U.S. Secret Service. Traditionally it’s a peaceful transition of power from one presidential administration to the next, but the inauguration of Joe Biden on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building as the 46th president was set to be more tense.

Just two weeks before, an angry mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to disrupt Congress’ certification of the Electoral College votes and Biden’s presidential win. The rioters overwhelmed the security force on the scene—the U.S. Capitol Police and the Metropolitan Police Department—to gain entry to the building. Five people were killed, two police officers later committed suicide, and more than 140 people, as of Security Technology’s press time, were later tracked down and arrested.

The incident highlighted how critical it is to be able to communicate quickly and effectively about what was happening, the seriousness of the threat, and what actions people should take in response.

For instance, during the Capitol attack, everyone within Washington, D.C., with a cellphone was notified via Emergency Alert of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s decision to implement a curfew to give law enforcement time to respond to the crisis.

“Mayor Bowser issues a city-wide curfew for DC for Wednesday, January 6, starting at 6 p.m. until Thursday, January 7, at 6 a.m.,” it said. “Essential workers, including healthcare personnel and media, are exempt.”

The alert was short and made it clear what recipients should do—both critical components of a mass notification in an emergency, says Imad Mouline, chief technology officer for Everbridge—which provides the critical event management system used by the D.C. region for emergency alerts.

“It’s incredibly important to be concise—you don’t want people to be interpreting things,” Mouline explains. “You have to restrict the message to three points at most. It can’t be a dissertation. Three points, three messages, and try to keep it within 30 words.”

It’s also crucial to know who the message is for: Is it for someone who will help remediate the situation? Someone who is impacted? Or just someone who needs to be made aware? Keeping this in mind while crafting alerts is important—especially as people are receiving more emergency alerts than ever before.

In 2020, Everbridge’s systems were used to send more than 5 billion communications—a 30 percent increase from the 3.5 billion sent in 2019. These communications ranged from alerts on California wildfires to Florida hurricanes to curfews in Washington, D.C., to the plethora of COVID-19 updates issued to more than 650 million people in 200 countries and territories.

But with this drastic increase in the number of emergency alerts being sent, the risk of alert fatigue also rises. In the first study of its kind published by BMC Health Services Research in 2013 after the H1N1 pandemic, researchers from the University of Washington analyzed the impact of public health communications on healthcare providers.

“Every increase of one local public health message per week resulted in a statistically significant 41.2 percent decrease in the odds of recalling the content of the study message,” according to the researchers. “Our results suggest that information delivered too frequently and/or repetitively through numerous communication channels may have a negative effect on the ability of health care providers to effectively recall emergency information.”

To help ward against this effect, the researchers suggested that organizations coordinate the dissemination of emergency alerts so healthcare providers could better recall the information and effectively respond to the alerts.

Additionally, those issuing the alerts can use various methods to escalate the severity of the alert and the response required. For instance, a lower-level alert such as notifying employees the office will be closed the following day for a maintenance issue could be sent via email. A higher-level alert, such as an evacuation notice, could be sent through a phone call—a much more disruptive method of communication, Mouline says.

“Making a phone call is going to convey a higher sense of urgency than sending an email,” he adds. “Something that’s imminent, a threat to life, you may want to use all methods.”

These aspects of effective emergency alerts and mass notification were top of mind for officials heading into the inauguration on 20 January. The FBI had issued a notice for law enforcement nationwide to be on high alert due to the potential for violence after the U.S. Capitol attack. Washington, D.C., had beefed up its physical security in response, with more than 15,000 National Guard deployed throughout the District, the installation of robust perimeter fencing around the Capitol, and major street closures to create a vast perimeter around the National Mall where inauguration festivities would take place.

Everbridge was also working closely with officials to ensure that should an emergency arise, alerts would be sent out to stakeholders, says Brian Toolan, director of government strategy for Everbridge.

Toolan explains that D.C. created a keyword alert, “Inauguration,” and allowed individuals to text to opt-in to receive emergency alerts and notifications about the inauguration. D.C. also installed additional cellphone towers throughout the District to increase coverage, capability, and capacity for emergency alerts.

“You never know how many people are going to opt-in to a system, and we want to make sure the platform is able to scale and send out that notification quickly,” Toolan says. “We don’t want a situation where an alert needs to be sent out now but isn’t received until 20 minutes later.”

On inauguration day, all the preparation and planning came to fruition for a seemingly uneventful day. Forty-fifth U.S. President Donald Trump departed the White House in the morning, 46th U.S. President Joe Biden was sworn in in the afternoon, and the transfer of power was completed without incident or a flurry of emergency alerts.

After the inauguration, D.C. would delete the numbers individuals used to opt-in to alerts on the event and would transfer its focus back—again—to issuing alerts on the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine distribution without creating alert fatigue.

“We always look at the fact that we don’t want to over-notify—that the more information we get isn’t always the best information, and you can lose your audience when something critical happens,” Toolan says. “Keeping your message brief, actionable, and to the point of what you need the person to do is critical. They should be able to read it within three seconds of getting it.”

Megan Gates is editor-in-chief of Security Technology. Connect with her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @mgngates.