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Critical crisis communications with Alert FM

February 23, 2024

Why the implementation of Alert FM could be a game-changer in disaster response communication

Last year, in the wake of devastating wildfires that exposed critical vulnerabilities in emergency communication, Butte County, California, took a proactive step towards enhancing public safety.

Sheriff Kory Honea, acknowledging the limitations of existing alert systems during the 2018 Camp Fire and the 2020 North Complex fires, spearheaded an initiative to revolutionize the county’s emergency response capabilities.

His proposal, presented to the Butte County Board of Supervisors, sought to secure $500,000 from the PG&E Settlement Fund for the installation of Alert FM, a radio-based emergency alert system designed to bridge the gaps in current communication infrastructures.

This innovative move comes in response to the stark reality faced by Butte County residents during recent wildfires: multiple cell towers failed, rendering systems like CodeRED and IPAWS ineffective, while social media alerts from the Sheriff’s Office failed to reach everyone.

“What we’ve learned is you have to have redundancy within the system because no one single platform will be 100 percent successful,” Honea explained, drawing on the harsh lessons from past disasters.

“No one single platform can be counted upon in every situation or disaster. And the Camp Fire certainly showed us that.”

Recognising the urgent need for a more reliable solution, Global Security Systems, the manufacturer of Alert FM, reached out to Honea post-fire.

Alert FM is designed to be a robust and efficient method of disseminating emergency information, using an in-home receiver that continuously monitors FM frequencies, flashing and sounding an alarm when an alert is issued.

Following persuasive presentations from Honea, Matthew Straeb Executive Vice President of Global Security Systems, and PG&E’s Dan Blair, the Board voted unanimously to allocate the necessary funds, recognising the system’s potential to significantly enhance public safety.

The investment is poised to cover the installation of Alert FM in local FM radio stations and the system’s licensing for five years with plans to subsidise the cost of receivers for residents, acknowledging the financial implications for the community.

The Sheriff’s Office, in collaboration with Straeb, has conducted extensive testing in various communities, ensuring the system’s effectiveness across the county’s diverse terrain.

This rigorous approach underscores the commitment to leaving no resident behind, particularly in remote areas with traditionally unreliable cell and radio service.

Straeb’s assurance to the board about expanding coverage, coupled with PG&E’s ongoing exploration of support options for the deployment of receivers, paints a promising picture of a more secure future for Butte County residents.

With plans to connect over 300 radio stations statewide, this initiative not only enhances the safety of Butte County but also contributes to a broader network benefiting all Californians.

A robust system

Straeb, in explaining the workings of this system, sheds light on its robustness and reliability, especially in scenarios where conventional communication networks falter.

“Power outages and cellular congestion and failure in emergencies are common,” says Straeb.

“The Alert FM system enables the Emergency Manager in charge to send alerts to our Satellites which then return the signal to specially equipped FM Radio station towers to receive the message, process it, and then broadcast the message in the data channel where the consumer usually sees the song, title and artist information.”

The design of Alert FM demonstrates a comprehensive understanding of the challenges posed by emergencies and the limitations of current communication technologies.

By leveraging satellite communication and the robustness of FM radio, coupled with battery-operated receivers, Alert FM is a robust solution for effective crisis communication, ensuring that vital information reaches those in need, irrespective of the surrounding circumstances.

Enhancing redundancy

Straeb provides a compelling example of Butte County, CA, a region frequently beset by disasters and characterised by its difficult terrain and remote areas: “With frequent power outages and wildfires, Sheriff Honea needed a system that could reach people relying on the outage-prone systems of Internet and broadcast to receive alerts.” This scenario underscores the limitations of conventional communication systems in the face of natural disasters.

The strength of Alert FM lies in its utilisation of FM radio signals, known for their broad range and ability to penetrate challenging landscapes.

“The FM Radio signal has a broad range of up to 50 miles and can reach difficult terrain and remote areas,” Straeb tells.

This wide coverage is crucial in ensuring that alerts reach even the most isolated communities.

Straeb also notes: “Our system also allows for multiple FM signals to overlap an area in case a radio station is in an affected area.” This overlapping ensures continuous coverage, even if one radio station becomes incapacitated due to a disaster.

Alert FM is designed to complement and enhance current emergency communication infrastructures, rather than replacing them.

Straeb explains: “We fill the gap when cellular, internet, and power fail, and now sirens.” He highlights the system’s interoperability as another key feature: “We have interoperability capability for text-based notification systems and siren systems.”

Innovation and expansion

As technology evolves, so too does Alert FM, with plans for advancements and new features that promise to further revolutionize emergency communication.

 Alert FM is expanding its reach to include accessible notification products.

“We are able to interface with accessible products like siren for Home, bed shakers, and similar accessible notification products,” Straeb tells.

“Our current earthquake alert product for home has been well received.”

Alert FM is branching out into critical infrastructure automation.

“We are introducing a critical infrastructure automation box that will provide rapid alerts for controlling fire doors, gas valves, generator on-off insertion of alerts into radio systems and PA systems,” Straeb adds.

When addressing counties or regions considering the adoption of Alert FM, Straeb presents a compelling argument: “75% of the public receives their emergency alerts via Broadcast Television and Cellular.

When these systems fail, the people that need to be informed quickly are left without a lifeline.”

Alert FM, with its robust and reliable communication method, ensures that the public remains informed even when these conventional systems break down.

By providing a dependable alternative, it is an essential component of any emergency preparedness strategy.

This article was originally published in the February 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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