2023-04-11 | Ryan Burrus - Senior Product Marketing Manager at BlackBerry

Public Alerting Error in Florida Highlights Importance of Preparation, Training and Trust

A “screeching alarm” blaring from your cellphone at 4:45 AM by mistake is disruptive, frightening, and confusing.

It’s also enough to get your state’s Governor tweeting that he will demand “swift accountability.” 



And accountability did come quickly: The Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) terminated its contract with its critical event management (CEM) provider.

The cacophony of notifications certainly jolted government leaders out of bed along with everyone else. However, they understand the most crucial issue in this case: Public trust is delicate.

The unfortunate outcome of this event is that many people are now looking to disable the alerts — alerts which “may mean the difference between life and death,” as the National Weather Service put it.

We urge Floridians to keep their alerts enabled. While nobody likes an unplanned wakeup call, the risk of disabling alerts is simply too high.

For example, newly released hurricane season forecasts indicate a high degree of uncertainty this year. And nearby states experienced a record number of tornadoes so far this year, including the devastation in Mississippi where at least 26 people died.

Public alerts save lives, but they must also be carefully managed, or they can break trust. 

Public Alerting Requires Training and Exercises

Humans make mistakes. Technical errors occur. But there are ways CEM providers can help reduce the chances of things going wrong.

That’s true whether you’re operating a CEM solution in-house or using a managed service, where the provider handles most or all of the alerting process on your behalf.

“Set it and forget it” isn’t an option with CEM. Public agencies and businesses alike need to plan and conduct regular exercises, drills, and training. These are all opportunities to establish communications, test effectiveness, and build trust with stakeholders, whether that’s “the public” or employees of an agency or private company.

We recommend mapping out the year ahead with alerting exercises and a thematic calendar. Then ensure that everyone involved attends and participates without fail.

Our internal business continuity planning (BCP)  expert, BlackBerry Director of Enterprise Business Continuity & Disaster Recovery Management, Laura Beattie, said in a recent interview:
“By conducting regular exercises, you can reinforce your processes and set everyone up for success during real events.

“Even if your processes aren't perfect yet, start testing them, and run tabletop exercises with pretend scenarios. Set the scene: What would you do if a disgruntled employee were to walk into one of your buildings and announce they've planted a bomb? What if some of your `single points of failure’ employees go out sick, and they're gone for a while? Set up scenarios and have key staff discuss their responses to them.” 

CEM Platform Usability Matters for Public Alerting

Another factor to consider when it comes to preventing costly CEM mistakes: How easy and intuitive is the system for administrators? In the heat of a crisis (or even during a test), those responsible for sending alerts shouldn’t have to second-guess the message itself, who’s receiving it, or which channel(s) it’s being sent to.

In the case of the Florida public alerting mistake, it was an alert test meant for TVs when few people have them on, but the test mistakenly went to phones, instead. 

With the right CEM solution, most of the work can be done in advance, which eliminates guesswork. Pre-approved templates save time and stop admins from blasting out an erroneous message in haste.

We suggest looking for CEM solutions that are designed for ease of use. They should be intuitive and user-centric.

And, as software changes over time, it’s important that everyone who may send an alert is aware of updates in functionality. CEM providers should have a process in place to highlight those changes for you and your team. 

Maintaining Public Trust

The incident this week in Florida was, in fact, part of a system test. The fact that testing was underway is a good sign. However, the mistake during that process breaks trust and is a critical reminder for anyone sending test alerts, to double- and triple-check that the right technical specifications are in place before any message is sent.

As an increasing number of agencies and governments turn to public alerting to inform citizens, we are seeing signs that the public trust is being taken seriously. Frequent and widespread testing is one of the signs we look for.

The UK is now preparing to run its first nationwide test, and administrators have deployed an extensive national campaign to make sure people are prepared for the test and future alerts, which will initially focus on severe weather, including flooding and fires.

The country appears to be taking every precaution to ensure it retains public trust.

With regular reviews, rehearsals, and secure communication in place, you can be ready for whatever comes next. And to simplify this process, consider working with a trusted partner in public alerting and CEM, like BlackBerry® AtHoc®.