The Company Behind Emergency Alerts10:02
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A cellphone displays the Amber Alert issued late on August 5, 2013 in Los Angeles, California, which marked the first time officials have notified the public of a statewide Amber Alert through their cellphones. The alert was in reference to James Lee DiMaggio, suspected of killing Christina Anderson, 44, and kidnapping one or both of her children: Hannah Anderson, 16, and Ethan Anderson, 8. Cellphone owners reportedly received messages automatically based on their proximity to the emergency, and not based on their phone number. The Amber Alerts sent out overnight described the vehicle DiMaggio is believed to be traveling in: a blue Nissan Versa with California license plate 6WCU986. Authorities believe the suspect may be making his way north to Canada. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
A cellphone displays the Amber Alert issued late on August 5, 2013 in Los Angeles, California, which marked the first time officials have notified the public of a statewide Amber Alert through their cellphones. The alert was in reference to James Lee DiMaggio, suspected of killing Christina Anderson, 44, and kidnapping one or both of her children: Hannah Anderson, 16, and Ethan Anderson, 8. Cellphone owners reportedly received messages automatically based on their proximity to the emergency, and not based on their phone number. The Amber Alerts sent out overnight described the vehicle DiMaggio is believed to be traveling in: a blue Nissan Versa with California license plate 6WCU986. Authorities believe the suspect may be making his way north to Canada. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
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During natural disasters and other emergencies, one of the top priorities of public officials is releasing accurate information, quickly. Traditional sources like radio can be effective, but there's no guarantee that everyone is listening. And there are cases where the advice for a particular community, street or even building is different from all those around it.

Companies like Massachusetts-based Everbridge see an opportunity here. Everbridge technology recently provided Philadelphia residents information about street closures during the pope's visit and played a central role in directing evacuated residents during the California wildfires, through the use of directed and very specific text messages, emails and cell phone alerts to those affected.

Interview Highlights: Jaime Ellerston

Is it possible to receive emergency alert messages without ever having signed up for anything?

“Absolutely. We build databases, first of all, to protect, and provide and prioritize safety for citizens and corporations. So in seven of the top 10 cities you’ll find us - Boston, D.C., Chicago, L.A., San Francisco – where they’re taking the Reverse 911 data to begin to be able to communicate to citizens when there’s something like a hurricane or a tornado or a man-made disaster – the Boston Marathon bombing - and they collect that data. And typically we use a portal as well for you to sign up and update your profile – where you want to get a message when there’s an emergency or a street closure for alternate side parking in the snow. So it could be a lot of different things that put you in the database and then you’re able to update that.”

And it’s not just a text message. Your phone really lets you know something is wrong.

“Yeah. Because of the ability now with today’s modern smartphones, we can override things like the controls for sound and make a higher level alert. That’s that Amber Alert, for instance, both on a highway and on your phone that’ll really be somewhat irritating, but it gets your attention for a purpose.”

How do you do that when phone lines are tied up due to an emergency?

“In fact, that happened in the Boston Marathon bombing. Literally 10 seconds after the first bomb went off, we were used to coordinate the command centers for the police and the active personnel they were calling in and in many cases, if you were trying to make a call out or reach a loved one that might have been running in the race, you were getting a busy signal. We optimize our communication, and by government, we’re prioritized in order of communication. But it’s also the idea that you’re using a multichannel approach. So you might elect first to receive a text message cause you answer those in meetings or in crisis, but you can send an email, we can turn that text message into a voice message or make a voice call on a landline or cellphone, we can go over satphones, highway signs for Amber Alerts – a lot of different channels. So one of the things is we optimize the message to get through as many as possible on as low a bandwidth, but we also use multiple channels to get through to you and multiple endpoints, from your cellphone, to your PC, or, as I said, a highway sign.”

How specific can you get with where and who gets the message?

“Let me give you two things that have been recent news – Joaquin coming up the East Coast, so you’ve got evacuation of low-lying areas, and literally across the street no issue whatsoever. You want to evacuate the people that the houses could be flooded by three feet so they're not on the rooftop being helivacked out, and you want the other people just to take normal precautions and move, or a wildfire that hits one side and not the other. In an active shooter scenario, you know, some messages are being delivered and said ‘It’s in the building you’re in,’ and we know which building we’re in because of the profile and location capabilities which we could tie into the phone, and so ‘you need to lock the door and barricade yourself.’ Two buildings over, we want you to evacuate. But getting that right information to the right device – if I’m in a classroom, I’m not playing on email. I may, though, listen to that loud beeping sound on my phone and answer it on the right device at the right time so you can make the right decision to protect life and livelihood.”

Do you worry about people ignoring or avoiding the messages?

“I think you have to be able to structure a difference between critical communications and normal communications. We don’t provide email services or just simple text messaging. In fact, in many of those devices, you are receiving spam nowadays, or if you go to different cultures – India, the Far East – it’s overdone. You get so many on your phone it’s like the spam we get in email. And so the ability to prioritize them, to come across with different tones, to understand in your profile which is your desired device and even what time of day you want to try to receive a message. And then when it is a true emergency, elevate the message by the tone, by the way it’s coming across. We have the capability to lock up the desktop and tell you that it’s a real fire, not one that you close the door and sit through the drill, is important. And so, we often work with companies, and cities and states on what is a best practice and how much messaging they should be doing, and how to clearly delineate between an emergency – there’s a guy with a gun downstairs and you need to stay in your office, versus it’s a fire drill and you need to get out of your office and go downstairs. And so there is a level of that, and cutting through that noise and making sure you can deliver it in the right format, the right language, for the right device is key.”

Guest

This segment aired on October 19, 2015.

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