Blog Post

Connecting local governments and public safety agencies to the public via SMS/MMS text messaging

According to Pew Research, nine-in-ten American adults (92 percent) own a mobile phone of some kind.  That reach is undisputed and why more and more industries are working to develop consumer mobile engagement strategies. This includes public safety and local government agencies. 

Currently, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) are the official government communication vehicle for distributing urgent public safety messages via the mobile channel, but is it possible these agencies could take mobile communication a step further by exploring the use of additional tools?

For instance, according to research conducted by Pew Research on smartphone usage, one of the most overlooked mobile features, yet most frequently used by consumers, is SMS/MMS text messaging. If utilized properly, this can provide a direct and ongoing line of engagement to local residents, which can become extremely important when trying to notify citizens of a major public safety incident. In order to do that, however, access and approval to message with local mobile numbers is needed. One way some agencies have been accomplishing this is through the use of common short codes. These five- to six-digit codes enable mobile users to opt-into receiving text message notifications from a particular agency. They are universally accessible on most networks and mobile devices.

Messaging options for local governments

Most agencies, especially local governments, in cities including Anaheim and Seattle, already have a messaging alert system in place that local residents can opt-into. Right now, that is possible only via a website, which can limit residents’ awareness of and engagement with these programs? In today’s mobile first world, local governments can employ common short codes to increase engagement and get more residents connected and informed. Residents can easily opt-in to alerts and announcements and government agencies can promote them via advertisements, brochures and other collateral.

Another advantage of utilizing SMS/MMS is that it is targeted to a mobile subscriber’s opted-in phone number, which may or may not physically be located in the geographic area where a person is currently located.  For example, subscribers could sign up for weather alerts in the town where they have a vacation home or where a family member lives to monitor their safety.  WEA alerts only target an area where the subscriber is currently physically located and where the phone is turned on and is receiving a signal.

Augmenting WEA efforts

How can local public safety and government agencies use common shorts codes to augment their current WEA efforts? 

1. Timely information on weather or other conditions – Weather conditions can escalate quickly putting safety at risk. Hot and dry summers can lead to brush fires; tornadoes or hurricanes can hit at any time; winter can bring frigid icy temperatures and heavy snow and that snow and heavy rain can eventually lead to flooding. By opting into a messaging service either with participating public safety agencies (fire department or police) or the local city government, residents could receive timely information about these conditions, including what area might be impacted the most by unsafe conditions, who should be contacted for more detailed information, safety reminders, etc.

2. Shelter and Safety Refuge Center Locations – Displacement is what usually follows severe weather and natural disasters, such as earthquakes. Getting people who have lost their homes to safety can be a massive effort. If residents are already receiving messages before or immediately following one of these public safety incidents (depending on conditions of cell towers) the process can become a highly organized and collaborative effort. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) provides a great example of how this can be initiated using common short codes.  FEMA uses them to provide updates and information, including where to find disaster relief shelters and recovery centers as well as important safety tips.

3. School related public safety notifications – Public safety incidents can happen at any time.  Enabling parents or students to opt-into a message service that provides timely updates about incidents, where to pick up children and other safety-related information can go a long way for public schools and universities trying to keep an open line of communication and ensure campus safety. Similar to local city governments, some colleges, such as Walsh College, already use text messaging programs but common short codes could be an option to make it easier for interested parties to access these programs and sign up.

4. Suspect Photos – During terror attacks sending information and photos of a potential suspect can become difficult since emergency personal is primarily relying on WEA, which doesn’t support sending media files or clickable links. MMS texting supports rich content and could easily be used in this type of situation to compliment communications being sent out by WEA.

5. Community Outreach – Setting up a texting program can also enable local agencies to increase transparency within their communities.  They can be used to notify residents of community events or keep them aware of potential public safety risks, such as heightened criminal activities. Open dialogue with local residents and providing them with a chance to meet and understand their local police and fire departments can go a long way to improve public safety communication and collaboration.

Messaging via common short codes provides an added layer of ubiquity and the ability to push messages to mobile subscribers in mass makes them attractive to local government entities wanting to enhance their communication and engagement with residents.

Recognizing that any communication method could be compromised in emergency situations, it is best to have multiple options, such as common short codes, that can help alert, inform and engage residents in the moments that matter most.

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