All cities are vulnerable to both natural and man-made threats that can put peoples’ lives and safety at risk. In Los Angeles, potential hazards and disasters include earthquakes, fires, severe weather and flooding, excessive heat, landslides, active shooters, and terrorism. The City’s first responders (Police and Fire departments) are deployed to address imminent situations; the City’s Emergency Management Department (EMD) is charged with sending informational alerts to the public about necessary actions to take in those situations, such as evacuating or sheltering in place.
City information on emergencies is disseminated through various means including the press, public statements from city officials, social media, and websites. The City’s mass notification system, branded as “NotifyLA”, is an informational tool with the capability to send immediate, automated alerts to the public through landline phones (as recorded message), and cell phones (through text messaging) or computers (through email) to subscribers. NotifyLA is free to the public, and individuals are encouraged to sign up to receive alerts via text, email, or social media. While landline phones within the City are included in NotifyLA, it can also send Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) to all smartphones within a designated area, similar to “Amber Alert” messages that emit distinct ringtones and vibration patterns. Given its potential to reach a large audience of Angelenos at the same time, it is critical that the City utilize the NotifyLA system in the best way possible to inform people about necessary actions they should take to preserve life and safety.
Our review found that the City needs to improve how NotifyLA is used to disseminate timely emergency information to the public, and address issues to optimize the system to provide more value to both subscribers and City operating departments, as noted below.
Disseminating Useful Emergency Information to the Public
NotifyLA has been used inconsistently in communicating emergency information to the public. EMD sends alerts based on direction by incident commanders (to help comply with coordination protocols). We noted that NotifyLA was not used to send alerts related to the September 2017 La Tuna Canyon Fire, but it was used three months later for the Creek fire. EMD’s General Manager stated that he advised the incident commander to use NotifyLA for this emergency; however, the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) chose other communication methods. Also, while EMD did not use the Wireless Emergency Alert capacity for an initial evacuation order for the Creek fire (Sylmar) area, it did use that functionality later in the day for an update on the same issue.
Public notifications through NotifyLA have generally been restricted to urgent emergency matters, which appears consistent with other cities’ practices relative to emergency management communications. EMD’s draft operating procedures1 indicate that strict protocols and governance measures have been implemented to ensure the system remains as effective as possible, which includes limiting the incidents/emergencies for which the system will be activated2, and only using the system when the public is being asked to take some action.
To support effective and consistent use of NotifyLA, EMD should formalize and distribute to all City Departments that use the system an updated Standard Operating Procedure that provides sufficient guidance on how and in what circumstances it should request an alert be sent by EMD. Internal protocols should also clarify what criteria should be used as a basis for EMD to coordinate messaging, to assure NotifyLA messaging aligns with City leaders’ expectations for the most effective use of a public emergency mass notification system.
The City should use Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) more consistently to deliver critical information that can minimize potential tragedies. While NotifyLA offers the City the ability to send notifications to a recipient’s cell, email, or landline phone, it can also opt to deliver those via WEA, which taps into the (federally-regulated) communication network. When and under what circumstances a jurisdiction initiates a WEA is at the local agency’s discretion, and there is debate among emergency management professionals about how often a WEA should be used. During the 2017 Santa Barbara fires, County officials sent thirteen WEAs over the course of the emergency because they did not want to take the chance that lives would be lost. In Sonoma County during the Tubbs fires, officials opted not to use WEA and dozens of people perished.
Since WEA serves as a precautionary measure to save lives and is capable of reaching the maximum number of people and devices, it would be of value to the public if the City used all of NotifyLA’s alert capabilities, including WEAs, when a significant disaster strikes.
To improve the dissemination of emergency information:
- EMD and/or the LAPD’s Department Operations Center should be required to disseminate alerts via NotifyLA for any emergency that is communicated to the public by the City through other methods (official press release, public comments by public officials, City social media accounts, etc.). The Emergency Operations Board should approve, support and enforce this policy.
1 Still in DRAFT as of our review, but modeled / updated from the official protocols disseminated in April 2014, before NotifyLA was implemented; when such notifications were to be communicated through Alert LA County.
2 These include: Imminent Threat to Life or Property; Disaster Notifications; Evacuation Notices and/or Information; Public Health Emergencies; and Other notifications to a defined community, as approved and deemed significant by the EMD General Manager, Assistant General Manager, or Duty Officer.
- EMD should formalize Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for Activation of Public Emergency Notification Systems, and provide guidance and training to City departments on the importance of using NotifyLA to reach the public at large. Also, EMD should develop protocols for the consistent dissemination of messages as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs).
Optimizing NotifyLA for the Public
Although U.S. Census data approximates that 46% of Los Angeles area population speak English less than “very well”, EMD primarily communicates NotifyLA emergency notifications in one language. NotifyLA data revealed that only 4 notifications sent by EMD since 2014 were translated into Spanish.3 Further, as the system translation feature is limited to just Spanish, EMD could not translate notifications into any of the other commonly spoken languages in the City, such as Chinese4, Armenian, Korean, Tagalog, or Vietnamese.
Los Angeles residents speak more than 185 languages, and tourists visit from all over the world; it is critical that the City provide important information through multilingual means to help ensure everyone has the opportunity to take safety measures when a disaster strikes. In 2016, the City of New York expanded its emergency notification program to support pre-scripted translations in 13 languages, including Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Italian, Korean, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Urdu, and Yiddish. Expanding NotifyLA’s capability to deliver pre-scripted messages in other languages would better serve the City’s diverse population.
NotifyLA subscribers may not find value from signing up through text messaging, due to receiving unwanted non-emergency messages from other jurisdictions. NotifyLA is supported by the Nixle platform, which also offers services to the emergency management departments and first responders of several local governments. When a user signs up to receive text messages on their phone, the provided zip code determines which future notifications to send to the subscriber’s contact number. However, the subscriber may then unintentionally receive messaging initiated by other law enforcement agencies, such as the County Sheriff’s Department and other cities’ police departments, who may use the alert system to provide general public information, such as public information campaigns, street closures, or to solicit the public’s help in investigations.
While the City has been successful in increasing subscribers to NotifyLA, it is marketed as the City’s system to provide alerts about emergency and critical incidents. Given that subscribers are not provided with instructions on how to limit the type and source of messaging they receive, they may unsubscribe from NotifyLA altogether to avoid the excessive messaging. Moreover, subscribers may not see a benefit from subscribing to NotifyLA since the system automatically includes the capability to deliver messages to landlines in the City, or to all smartphones as WEAs.
3 Of the 41 non-test messages sent via NotifyLA, auditors were able to review message details for 19 notifications.
4 The US Census Bureau includes Cantonese, Mandarin, and other Chinese languages in its classification of “Chinese.”
To optimize NotifyLA for the public, EMD should:
- Develop a plan including any needed funding to facilitate translations of emergency alerts into the City’s commonly spoken languages.
- Refine its NotifyLA subscription campaign to demonstrate a clear value to potential subscribers.
- Provide subscribers with step-by-step instructions on how to filter messages for subscribers to define notifications that are relevant to them.
Facilitating City Operations Through NotifyLA
City departments could better leverage NotifyLA for communications relative to the City’s Disaster Service Worker (DSW) Program.
As required by California law, all personnel employed by a city, county, state, or public district are automatically designated as disaster service workers.5 As part of the DSW program, EMD indicated that City employee duties may include assisting:
- The Department Operations Center or the City’s Emergency Operations Center;
- City departments with their response efforts;
- or Nonprofit organizations in their response efforts.
When the Mayor issues an emergency proclamation and DSWs are activated, DSWs are expected to report for assignment as directed by their department management. City departments could leverage NotifyLA’s capabilities to call on personnel to serve the public and assist with an emergency response; however, it is up to each department’s emergency coordinator to determine whether, or how to use NotifyLA for their interdepartmental communication needs, including informing employees of their DSW responsibilities during an emergency.
The Controller has initiated a separate review of the City’s Disaster Service Worker Program, which will expand on these opportunities.
The City could benefit from a coordinated negotiating effort, including issuing a new RFP, and potentially utilizing one consolidated agreement with the current provider. Without a new Request for Proposal (RFP), the City may not be receiving the best pricing and services to meet its needs. The systems platform used for NotifyLA was procured years ago, and the current service agreement does not specify terms of service or how the City’s pricing or use is defined. The software provider has since been acquired by another company that provides an expanded product suite; in addition, technology and the needs of the City have changed over time. We noted both the Los Angeles World Airports (Airport) and the Harbor Department (Port) have service licensing agreements for an automated notification system with the same vendor. We noted that during 2017, the Airport and Port separately paid $97,000 and $23,000, respectively while EMD paid $235,000 for a one-year subscription to support NotifyLA. Other jurisdictions indicated their annual costs range from $34,000 to $80,000.
5 California Government Code Section 3100-3109.
While the underlying infrastructure and functionality of the systems appears similar, cost differences may be the result of neither the Airport, nor the Port using their systems for general public alerts, nor soliciting subscribers from members of the public. Other cities are smaller and two contacted cities indicated they use the vendor’s expanded product.
However, since the services are similar and provided by the same vendor, and the industry and related products have changed significantly since the original selection and pricing decisions were made, the City would benefit from coordinated negotiating effort, including issuing a new RFP, to obtain the best product, services and pricing for the system platform to support NotifyLA.
To facilitate City operations through NotifyLA:
- EMD should work with the Airport and Port departments to coordinate negotiations and contracting efforts, to provide the City with the best service agreement for the best price.
- EMD should work with stakeholders to develop specifications for a new Request for Proposal, and solicit competitive bids for the platform to support NotifyLA.
As a citywide public mass notification system, NotifyLA’s primary objective is to quickly deliver alert, warning and instructional messaging to City residents and businesses during disasters or large scale citywide events. The system also allows the City to send important information regarding incidents/emergencies in defined geographical areas, and facilitates emergency communication with employees. While the web-based platform used to support NotifyLA has sufficient functionality, the City should address the issues noted in this review to maximize its effectiveness and value.
- The City should take a more consistent approach to using the system when an emergency event occurs, and use of Wireless Emergency Alerts when appropriate to increase the likelihood that the public will be aware of necessary actions to preserve life and safety.
- To provide more value to the public, EMD should refine its subscription campaign to demonstrate the value for signing up for text and email notifications, and provide additional information to help subscribers set their desired message delivery settings. In addition, EMD should increase the availability of multiple languages, so that important messages are understood by the City’s non-English speaking residents and visitors.
- The City should coordinate its negotiating efforts to obtain the best product and services to support its current needs for a mass notification system, at the best price and pursue issuing a new RFP.
Review of the Report
On July 12, 2018, a draft of this report was provided to EMD management. We met with Department management at an exit conference on July 19, 2018. EMD management generally agreed with the issues and recommendations and provided some clarifications. Additionally, we provided a draft of the report to the Chiefs of the Los Angeles Police and Fire Departments as Recommendation 2 is addressed to the Emergency Operations Board (EOB) in which they serve as Chair and Vice-Chair, respectively. We considered all views and comments as we finalized this report. EMD provided their formal response and action plan on August 10, 2018, which is included as Appendix II.
Based on our evaluation of EMD’s reported actions and implementation plan, we now consider seven recommendations as “In Progress” (Recommendations 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 9) and three as “Not Yet Implemented” (Recommendations 6, 8, and 10). While EMD’s action plans generally meet the intent of the recommendations, further clarification is provided for Recommendations 1 and 7.
EMD intends to revise its Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) to address Recommendation 1. As part of the action plan, EMD should also provide guidance and training to departments on the use of NotifyLA.
EMD’s response to Recommendation 7 is to enhance its social media and website coverage for potential subscribers but that funding would be needed for a campaign. The intent of the recommendation will be met through EMD’s current “campaign” efforts through its social media and website coverage; a paid marketing plan is not necessary.
We thank EMD staff and management for their time and cooperation during this review.