In the “Report to the President on U.S. Preparations for the 2009 H1N1 Influenza,” the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stated that, because of “the rapidly evolving nature of the outbreak, the number and complexity of the messages and the myriad of channels through which the public will be receiving information,” effective communications would be one of the most difficult challenges in managing the outbreak.
One solution might be mass notification technology. Designed for the rapid and pervasive dissemination of information to large populations, modern mass notification technology has moved beyond the traditional blaring sirens or flashing lights that characterized early systems. Newer systems have evolved to exploit the power of information technology, computer systems and the internet to reach hundreds of thousands of geographically dispersed people through multiple devices in a matter of minutes, using intrusive alerts and two-way communication methods that ensure alert receipt.
These network-centric alerting systems allow authorized personnel to manage, control and disseminate clear and accurate information to individuals or specialized groups, such as hospital administrators, HAZMAT experts, government officials and medical response teams. For example, if a specific geographic region is identified as being especially hard hit by the spread of H1N1, public health officials could use mass notification systems to contact high risk groups or the first responder community, and quickly direct them to health facilities for vaccination.
With network-centric emergency notification, alerts are triggered from a web-based console from any network-connected computer or device. Once activated, alerts are disseminated across the internet or internal organizational networks in the form of intrusive audio/visual messages to desktop computers and mobile devices such as phones, pagers, BlackBerry devices and PDAs. These systems can also use websites, social networks and other non-traditional channels. And, because many traditional alerting channels (sirens, telephones) now have IP interfaces, the system can trigger alerts to those traditional channels as well.
At first glance, traditional mass media (e.g., television and radio) may appear to be the optimal channel for critical communication about an emergency. While mass media has a role to play, it does have some serious inherent liabilities, including control, accuracy and consistency of the message.
A mass notification system can maintain control of not only the content of the message, but who gets it and when. Furthermore, subscription-based technology, which allows individuals to opt-in to specific types of alerts or define their personal profiles, allows recipients to control the level and detail of information disseminated to them. So the health care community may receive more professional-related notifications, while the education community may receive information related to children and recommended responses by schools.
A network-centric mass notification system also allows the capturing of responses from the message recipients. This capability lets agencies quickly record not just who received the alerts, but also check the status of the alerted personnel to identify the number of infected personnel in the recipient’s organization, or whether a recipient’s organization is adequately staffed.
The timely identification of suspected infections (e.g., “the case in San Diego was not caused by the H1N1 virus”); the communication of preventative measures (e.g., “wash your hands thoroughly for two minutes with warm water and soap”); and the correction of false or misleading information (e.g., “you cannot get swine flu by eating pork”) can all be managed through mass alerting technology. The ability to target specific groups with specific messages can help manage the response of health care professionals, first responders or public officials.
Public health officials have acknowledged that clear, accurate information delivered to the right people, at the right time, using the most efficient method can be a significant factor in breaking the transmission chain of a disease and avoiding a public health catastrophe. So a system that can manage and disseminate vital information quickly is an essential tool in the H1N1 response plan.