The digital manhunt for the suspect in the mid-September 2016 Chelsea district bombings in New York illustrates both the promise and challenges of advanced crisis communication and emergency alerting.
New York City, State, and Federal agencies investigating the attacks moved rapidly to reach out to the public, using a variety of means. The result was that almost anyone at risk had the possibility of receiving notification on how to protect themselves, and the public was successfully recruited to help find the perpetrator.
One of the methods used to alert the public immediately became controversial. An alert went out over the federal government's Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, delivering a brief message listing the name of the suspect, his gender, and his age. Recipients were instructed to turn to other "media" for his picture, and call 911 if the suspect was seen.
New York Magazine and the New York Times quickly posted articles criticizing many aspects of the alert, and a huge number of other publications ranging from Slate and Politico to the AP, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal reported on the usage. Among their concerns were:
- Frequent usage of the WEA system carries the possibility that people will become inured to it – especially if it used for non-essential situations (don't cry wolf).
- Not everyone has these alerts enabled on their mobile phones, so not everyone who needs to read the notifications will receive them.
- The limited number of characters and lack of multimedia capabilities of these alerts make it easy to accidentally direct the public to other individuals with the same name, or create a vigilante-style mentality seeking anyone with the same physical appearance.
The federal WEA system is supposed to be reserved for Amber Alerts for kidnapped children, severe weather notifications, and official Presidential directives. New York's novel use to locate and apprehend a possible terrorist will become an iconic case study for security consultants for years to come on how this technology can benefit real-time law enforcement and anti-terrorist activities. It will also generate considerable debate surrounding the ways that wide area alerts might become counterproductive, unless well-established standards and best practices are applied.
Studies have shown that poorly worded or badly formatted messages severely limit the effectiveness of emergency alerts. Obviously, New York law enforcement agencies were acting under immense pressure, aggressively working to apprehend a dangerous person and contain a potentially catastrophic crisis. Other successful outreach efforts employed during the crisis have been unfairly overlooked as a result.
What Was Learned
There are two lessons that every law enforcement agency and civic government should take away from this situation. The first is that expanded use of WEA will continue. The second is that every organization considering its use must learn how to properly use WEA – or any other form of emergency alerting – if it is to be effective and productive.
Doing this requires a structured approach, not creating a message under pressure and within 15 minutes, which is what happened in this situation.
Experts in the field of emergency notification have performed a variety of studies that explore what language and formatting work best for different forms of communication, including the WEA system. These results have been codified into best practices standards for multiple scenarios, and have proven their effectiveness under real-world conditions.
Blackberry's AtHoc system is built to support these standards, and we have helped many law enforcement agencies adopt these best practices into their daily operations. The key is to develop the right capabilities and hold drills on their use before an emergency occurs. That way, a poorly structured emergency alert is less likely to be issued.
We are glad to share our experience and expertise in alert structure and formatting with any organization seeking to improve their crisis communication and notification.