MCP Insights

Like Every Public-Safety Technology, Warning-and-Alerting Systems Continue to Evolve

Posted on June 4, 2024 by Brian Malinich

Like Every Public-Safety Technology, Warning-and-Alerting Systems Continue to Evolve

The amount and type of natural and manmade emergencies that can threaten a community seemingly are unending. The following represents the proverbial tip of the iceberg: weather-related events — e.g., tornados, hurricanes, and severe thunderstorms — wildfires, hazardous material spills, earthquakes, rock and mud slides, and floods.

Fortunately, a plethora of time-tested systems exist that public-safety, emergency-management and emergency-response agencies can leverage to warn citizens of impending disasters and, ideally, get them out of harm’s way before a life-threatening emergency lands on their doorstep. These include:

These systems have been in place for many years, in some cases, decades. But like every other technology, warning-and-alerting systems continue to evolve. The following are some of the more interesting ways of late:

  • Outdoor warning-and-alerting systems often consist of dozens, even hundreds of sirens, and finding out that some aren’t operational when they’re needed is a very bad outcome. Fortunately, diagnostic applications have developed that automatically monitor system health 24/7. So, an agency will know immediately if sirens aren’t functioning or batteries aren’t charging properly, for example.
  • Some systems can ingest weather and data from numerous sources, digest the information, and then activate automatically based on the input. Some agencies might be uncomfortable with allowing the system to “drive itself,” but such a capability can be a real lifesaver in certain fast-developing situations, and the agency does have the ability to establish filters, i.e., “safety buffers,” to control when the system can self-trigger.
    • Tornados, which can drop out of the sky unexpectedly, are a prime example of a situation where automatic activation would prove advantageous. Wildfires, which can grow exponentially and/or shift in the blink of an eye with a change in wind direction, are another.
    • The Cedar Fire that devastated the San Diego area in 2003 immediately comes to mind. When it started at 5:00 p.m., it reportedly covered about 20 acres; by midnight it had grown to 5,500 acres and by 3:00 a.m. it was at 62,000 acres. We heard one story about a couple, after the wildfire shifted and was bearing down on their home, who had only seconds to race through their patio and jump into their backyard pool, which enabled them to survive. Seconds count in every emergency, but in extreme situations like these, the ability of a warning-and-alerting system to trigger automatically seems like a good idea.
  • Smartphones significantly have changed how warning-and-alerting systems are utilized. Today, most alerts are pushed out to these devices, but outdoor warning systems still can play an important role. For example, older citizens, especially retirees, often do not have smartphones, so siren systems are critical to alerting them of impending disasters. Also, emergency-management officials can use their smartphones to activate warning-and-alerting systems from wherever they are — even on the other side of the planet — provided they have an internet connection.
  • Increasingly, warning-and-alerting system infrastructure is moving to the cloud, with the same security and reliability considerations that had to be contemplated for every technology that experienced a similar migration. One is that public-safety and emergency-management officials wonder about the perceived lack of control. But this can be addressed via a hybrid approach that combines cloud-hosted infrastructure with an edge-computing network. The latter is a distributed computing framework that is used to process time-sensitive data. Servers are placed at the edge of the network, i.e., close to the user agency, sensors, or warning devices, and that’s where the bulk of the data processing occurs. The result is greatly reduced latency, much faster application response times — and local control.
  • Something else officials wonder about is whether their cloud-hosted warning-and-alerting infrastructure will be available to them whenever it is needed. This really shouldn’t be a concern because cloud-hosted solutions are available anywhere network connectivity exists, and they offer unparalleled resiliency and redundancy.
    • In addition, cloud-hosted solutions are easier to update, upgrade, and replace, and they’re scalable. Moreover, hardware refreshes, software upgrades, patches and routine maintenance are the responsibility of the cloud provider, whose information technology (IT) personnel may have unique skills regarding maintenance, troubleshooting, and cybersecurity applications than may be available in the public sector.

Looking toward the future, we see potential for the conversion of existing campuswide communications systems employed by colleges and universities so that they can double as outdoor/indoor warning-and-alerting systems.

For example, Princeton University has deployed the “Blue Light” system that consists of 42 emergency phones and 23 communications “towers” scattered across its campus. Students and faculty can use the phones to connect with the university’s emergency communications center (ECC) with the press of a button. The towers, which might be described more accurately as kiosks, are equipped with loudspeakers to enable dissemination of warnings and alerts. It works like a cellular network and eliminates the need for a centralized warning-and-alerting system with one or more rooftop sirens. This seems to be an approach that other colleges and universities across the country easily could replicate.

We would love the opportunity to talk with you about all this and more, and to help you craft a warning-and-alerting strategy that aligns with your unique environment and circumstances — so, please reach out.

Mike Hunter is an MCP senior project manager. Email him at

Brian Malinich is an MCP senior systems engineer. Email him at

Subscribe to Newsletter