To learn more about disaster communications tools, Government Product News reached out to John Von Thaden, an executive at Oak Brook, Ill.-based Federal Signal.

Von Thaden is the Vice President/General Manager for Alerting and Notification Systems, a unit of Federal Signal Safety and Security Group. He joined Federal Signal in 1998 as product manager for outdoor warning systems. He has held positions in marketing, sales, and advanced solution development during his 15-year tenure with Federal Signal.

In his current role, Von Thaden has worldwide responsibility for alerting and notification solutions for government, healthcare, and industrial markets. These markets include advanced public warning systems and the SmartMsg unified interoperable communications platform.

Federal Signal is a designer and manufacturer of products and total solutions that serve municipal, governmental, industrial and commercial customers. The firm operates four groups: Safety and Security Systems, Environmental Solutions, Federal Signal Technologies, and Fire Rescue.  It recently developed EMComm, an Emergency Management Communications and public safety blog.

Here are John Von Thaden’s views.

Government Product News: What communications tools can governments and other organizations use during and after a disaster?

John Von Thaden: It is critical to ensure that at-risk populations are effectively reached when a disaster is imminent. With advances in technology, the job of reaching people has grown increasingly more difficult. Individual preference and the sheer number of available communication channels make this a challenging endeavor.  A layered approach to communication is the most effective means for ensuring that the message is effectively delivered. 

Outdoor Warning sirens remain a highly effective means of gaining attention and alerting the public to at-risk situations, particularly when the threat is imminent. Telephone notification, short message service (SMS) and text-based messaging to cell phones and e-mail are increasingly preferred methods by younger and more urban populations.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS) infrastructure offers a means for emergency managers and other officials to transmit critical information via the National Weather Service NOAA weather radio network, over the cellular infrastructure via the Wireless Emergency Alert system, and share information with other agencies. In addition, social media offers critical opportunities for reaching key populations while monitoring the general response to information.

GPN: Are there any tools that can make landlines and cell phones more dependable and usable during and after a disaster?

JVT: Cellular carriers offer COWS (Cellular On Wheels) to augment and increase cell coverage and capacity during disasters, but voice communications are typically overloaded during and immediately after local disasters. It is critical that public safety personnel recognize the limitations of voice communications and the potential for cellular coverage to be hampered if cell towers are damaged. 

However, the ability to send messages to text and voice devices is still an important communications layer, and systems such as SmartMsg allow for geo-targeted messaging via high volume telephone and text transmission. Utilizing a hosted dialing infrastructure, such as that offered by Federal Signal, ensures that text messaging can be transmitted, even if there is limited capability for local calling by the agency.  

GPN: Are there other tools that governments should consider, such as Dynamic Retasking Capability (DRC) texting tools?

JVT: We are not aware of DRC being utilized outside of the military, but this technology might offer benefits if it were deployed. But we do think that the IPAWS system might be of value to consider discussing.

GPN: What communications tools are best suited for government officials and government personnel to use in disaster planning and recovery?

JVT: Ensuring effective communication with employees as part of a disaster recovery plan is crucial and systems such as Federal Signal SmartMsg can be an effective tool. Our ScenarioMgr module allows recipients to respond to a series of questions sent by the message originator. The responses are compiled and transmitted directly to key personnel. This can allow executives to confirm which employees are available to work, when they can arrive, and even question whether employees need any assistance.

During the event, this same system can allow for transmission of alert and notification messaging via cellphone, pager, PCs, radio, and the local public address system for a comprehensive solution that is effective during and after a situation has occurred.

GPN: Thank you, John Von Thaden.

View a demonstration of the SmartMSG mass notification system (MNS) software in this video.

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