Call or Text 877.840.2444

People watching wildfire

Using Emergency Evacuation Software to Avoid Another Maui

People watching wildfire

October 10, 2023 Posted by in Crisis Communications, Mass Notification

Authorities in Maui county, Hawaii, utilized reputable Emergency Evacuation Software to alert citizens of a dangerous wild fire raging through the town of Lahaina. So why did the evacuation fail miserably? That’s the question many emergency managers, state and city leaders, and devastated residents are desperately trying to answer.

With approximately 100 people dead, $8-10 billion in damages, and thousands displaced from their homes, the recent wildfire in Maui offers a tragic object lesson in the do’s and don’ts of Emergency Evacuation Software.

This article explores some of the best practices to implement, as well as pitfalls to avoid, in order to get the most out of any Emergency Alert System. Because when lives are on the line and seconds count, you need an alert system that performs under pressure.

Make Emergency Evacuation Software More Effective

In a September 2023 New York Times article on the Maui wildfire, Dr. Jeannette Sutton is quoted saying of the nationwide Wireless Emergency Alerts system, “It is vital. It is absolutely necessary. It does save lives.” As a professor in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security, and Cybersecurity at the University at Albany, Dr. Sutton understands the value of a dependable system that can reach people where they are to alert them of a threat and instruct them on how to find safety. “When the system is operated correctly,” Ms. Sutton said, “it acts like a siren in thousands of pockets, giving the authorities the ability to warn the right people at the right time.”

According to the experts, the effectiveness of evacuation alerts can’t be denied. But Emergency Evacuation Software still requires a proper rollout and dependable features in order to work successfully. For example, during the Maui wildfire, cell coverage was disrupted by fire damage to above-ground fiber-optic lines. Had these lines been buried, the audience targeted by the wireless emergency alert would have been warned about the blaze. Government authorities and private organizations need to work together to identify these infrastructure issues and eliminate them so evacuation alerts can work seamlessly.

Another feature of the best Emergency Evacuation Software known as geo-fencing allows authorities to send precise messages to targeted groups within a predetermined geographic location. During the Maui wildfire, the geo-map was drawn too tight, excluding some of the residents in harm’s way. This situation can be avoided by casting a wider net to ensure your emergency alert encompasses all those who could potentially be affected by the threat.

Lastly, it is critical to utilize Emergency Evacuation Software that incorporates multi-channel communication options. The best Mass Notification Systems utilize communication channels such as voice, text, email, push notifications, and even apps like Microsoft Teams. When these features are applied properly, Emergency Evacuation Software can prove decisive in a volatile situation. As the New York Times article notes of those who received evacuation alerts during the Maui wildfire, “Some who received the alert said it may have saved their lives.”

What Is Decision Fatigue in an Emergency Evacuation?

Decision fatigue occurs when authorities or a crisis management team fail to act in a timely manner because the many variables of a situation simply overwhelms them. Even the best Emergency Alert Systems depend on capable, well-trained staff to roll them out when seconds count. This makes training a vital component of your organization’s emergency evacuation plan. It doesn’t matter what tools are at your disposal to keep people safe if your crisis management team doesn’t utilize them properly. As the Times’ article notes, authorities dealing with the Maui wildfire did not send a wireless emergency alert to residents until 4:16 p.m. By this time, the fire had already entered the town of Lahaina.

Even when Maui authorities finally sent the alert, it excluded neighborhoods not yet reached by the fire but certainly in its path. Given the volatile nature of a wildfire (as well as most emergency situations), it would have been prudent to anticipate the fire’s spread and target a much larger area to receive the emergency evacuation alert. Compounding issues, the audible warning sirens were not activated because of fear that residents would misinterpret the threat and think a tsunami was imminent.

These decisions reflect legitimate concerns but poor execution. That’s why training is vital to the success of an emergency evacuation plan — so no one hesitates to implement the action plan that save lives.

Are Early Morning Test Alerts Legal?

Maybe the most common question asked about evacuation alerts is whether or not early morning test alerts are legal. It may sound silly when lives are on the line, but people can find emergency alerts frustrating. This is one reason many do not opt-in to government mass notification alert systems — people often simply don’t want to be disturbed. Private organizations can require employees to utilize their Emergency Evacuation Software, but regardless, it’s clear that buy-in from all those involved is crucial for any evacuation plan to work.

In April 2023, the Florida Division of Emergency Management ended its contract with Everbridge, the company that operated their Emergency Evacuation Software, because of a test alert sent out at 4:45 a.m. State lawmakers even drafted a provision called the “Stop Wake Act” to legally prevent such early morning test alerts. While the frustration is understandable, the reaction is dangerous. Commenting on the Act, National Weather Service science and operations officer Matt Anderson says, “It’s really important not to silence those because it woke you up, right? That was its general purpose was to wake you up to alert you to something that could save your life.” Anderson’s comments highlight a crucial element of effective emergency plans: They must be taken seriously.

People who treat Emergency Evacuation Alerts like a nuisance will be more likely to dismiss them when a crisis hits. That’s why executives, crisis management teams, and government authorities must invest in communicating the serious nature of emergency alerts and evacuation plans. The tone is set from the top down. Let your people know you care about them and have employed Emergency Evacuation Software in order to keep them safe.

What Is the ‘Cry Wolf’ Effect in an Emergency Evacuation?

A recent article on the effects of tornado alerts in the Southeastern U.S. notes that 75% of tornado warnings are false alarms. As a result, many in the public have lost confidence in these alerts and even fail to respond appropriately. This is known as the “cry wolf” effect. If you’re familiar with the classic fable, the boy who cried wolf eventually met his demise when a true crisis hit. The townspeople grew complacent with his false alarms, so when he actually needed their help, they did not respond. The real-life results of the “cry-wolf” effect are just as tragic.

Imagine issuing a Shelter in Place Notification only to have it ignored. This would place your people directly in harm’s way in the event of inclement weather or an active shooter threat. Or consider issuing an Emergency Evacuation Alert only to have people stay put. In both cases, lives are in danger.

Note: The difference between an Emergency Evacuation Plan and a Shelter in Place directive is simple: An evacuation plan instructs individuals to leave the premises to find safety, while a Shelter in Place alert instructs them to remain where they are in order to stay safe. Both directives could be applied in a single crisis, depending on the ever-changing nature of the threat. That’s why you need a Mass Notification System capable of providing relevant updates in real-time to keep your people safe.

This makes education key to a successful emergency plan. Make sure your employees know why scheduled and unscheduled tests are critical. And invite them to consider the dangers of ignoring emergency instructions. Consider hosting emergency management experts to drive this point home using real-life events as examples. Be creative, informative, and intentional.

Ready to Explore More about Emergency Evacuation Software?

Consider how RedFlag’s award-winning Mass Notification System can help you save time, money — and lives.

Ready to Get Started?

See how RedFlag can help you protect what matters most with a 15-minute custom demo.