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“The Best Notification”: A System Of Systems?

November 2nd, 2009 · No Comments

A new post, “The Best Notification,” by Rick Wimberly on’s Alerts and Notifications blog summarizes an interesting report Wimberly issued this year, Notifications, Alerts, Warnings: The Next Generation.

As governments at all levels try to determine the optimal alert/warning systems, Wimberly, president of Galain Solutions, argues for a “system of systems” which encompasses myriad distribution methods:

Get five emergency management professionals together, and you’ll get five opinions on the best way to alert and notify the public. Opinions will range from sirens-to-telephones-to-broadcast-to-giant voice-to-flashing lights-to-instand messaging-to-social media to who knows what else. Walk the floor of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) conference vendor display area and you’ll see more companies hawking their notifying and alerting wares than any other product. And, guess what, they’ll all claim theirs is the best.

So, who’s really right? Well, none of them…and all of them. There is no single “best” way to notify and alert the public. There are lots of them! It all depends on three questions, each one as important as the other: (1) what are you trying to say, (2) who are you trying to say it to, and (3) what do you have available?

There are significant differences in the ways people receive and react to important information…and the variances between the preferences grows daily. Gone are the days when the nation waits for dinner time to hear the late and wonderfully trustworthy Walter Cronkite tell us the way it was.

Now, some people use only the latest communication modes, like social media, to get important information. Others don’t even know what social media is. Many of us rely on email, yet some young people think email is passe’. (I overheard young colleagues recently talking about a friend fighting with her boyfriend because he kept emailing her. “Doesn’t he know how to text?”, they said.) What about the people who don’t have land telephone lines? What about special needs?

Nothing new in that paragraph. We all have seen our communications preferences change, perhaps significantly and perhaps often, during the last few years. So, what’s the best way to notify and alert the public? It’s not a notification “system”, but rather a “system of systems”. According to Wikipedia, a system-of-systems is “a collection of task-oriented or dedicated systems which pool resources and capabilities to obtain a coalesced, more complex, ‘meta-system’ offering more functionality and performance than simply the sum of the constituent systems”.

Translate this to the world of notifications and alerts and you have a central controlling system, built in a way that other systems can plug into it. The system of systems would be “managed”, meaning specific processes would be followed for design, sustainment, operations, and flexibility. Standards, governance, and a management process would provide discipline and structure to keep the approach from becoming daunting. It’s really not that difficult, but it takes acceptance by all involved that there’s no “best” way of notifying and alerting the public.

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Tags: Preparedness Ideas · Preparedness Reports

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