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E-Mail Alerts:  What’s Available

Marcia Brooks

WGBH National Center for Accessible Media 




The WGBH National Center for Accessible Media is working on the grant project “Access to Emergency Alerts for People with Disabilities”, funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce Technology Opportunities Program.   

Work on making emergency alerts accessible grows out of WGBH's three decades of experience pioneering and furthering access solutions to mass media for people with disabilities. 

A summary of the efforts of the project’s first year includes: formation of an Advisory Board and Working group; development of a conceptual model to facilitate gap analyses; development of consumer use case scenarios; development of preliminary information requirements; and formation of a Web-based information repository. 

Current efforts in the second of the project’s three years include: conducting consumer focus groups; developing partner relationships to conduct testing and develop demonstration models; establishing contacts at Massachusetts agencies, to explore a state model for notification; and conducting outreach. 

Other planned efforts include: refinement of use cases and information requirements; usability testing; development of a demonstration model; test implementations and evaluations of use cases in products and services; further development of the information repository; and annual Advisory Board meetings. 

Text Alert Messaging   

Text alert messaging is supported by two technologies.  The SMS, short message system, and conventional e-mail.  Most emergency alerts notification systems can accommodate both.  User profiles can store both cell phone and e-mail contact information. 

Text alert messaging is commonly available on a wide range of personal mobile devices designed for display on small screens of cell phones and pagers.  Character limit is approximately 140-characters per message.  The Access Alerts project will look into message size as one component of effective messaging.      

Text alert messaging is capable of multi-part messages, and uses forward distribution, which is able to automatically resend the message if the recipient device is turned off or is out of range.

Traditional e-mail using SMTP, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, can accommodate longer text messages with enclosures. These are used by the popular RIM, Blackberry, and Sidekick devices.

E-Mail Notification and Text Messaging Service Offerings


Many of the services made available over the last few years are provided by broadcast television stations, as they continue to gain a more sophisticated presence on the Internet.  There are a variety of notification services for topics including sports, stocks, school closings, as well as weather, traffic, and other emergencies.  Most are available on a free subscription basis, requiring an e-mail address and/or cell phone number.  The user profile often provides the ability to register multiple e-mail or cell phone numbers, and the ability to select the type of messages received by region.


E-Mail Notification Services 

There are a wide variety of service choices available across the U.S.; a few examples are covered in this paper.  Notification services are offered by: local TV stations and newspapers; local, regional, and state governments; and private companies.  There are private, ad-sponsored, and fee-based services.  Most services are free, and provide menu choices for types of alerts and desired geographical areas.  There are additional services designed for specific audiences that enable companies to alert various hierarchies of employees, parent organizations, etc.   

Text Alert Messaging Features and Needs        

Some challenges should be noted.  Text-based services can be difficult for individuals to use if English is not their primary language, and if there are literacy issues.      

Another issue is sometimes referred to as the “cry wolf” syndrome. Receipt of multiple messages can create clutter, making it difficult to readily identify more important messages.  The importance of conveying confidence in the authority of the message originator is an often-stated need. There are also challenges posed by sending verbose messages in a terse environment. 

 “Free” services can have indirect or direct costs.  Most sites require minimal personal information to deliver notifications to subscribers’ cell phone numbers or e-mail address.  Before signing up for notification services, it’s good practice for would-be subscribers to be familiar with the provider’s privacy notices, to understand how personal information will be used.  We have not yet seen evidence of “spam” e-mail resulting from subscription services.  If the subscription site provides marketing services for a sponsor, the site should provide an “opt-out” to allow the subscriber to decline messages from sponsors.  

While a subscription service may send messages for free, a subscriber can still incur costs per message from their e-mail or cell phone service providers.  The cost per message may otherwise be included in service plans. 

Examples of Notification Services      

Of the variety of available services, a few examples are presented here, including: the Emergency E-mail Network; the Regional Public Information Network (“RPIN”, in Washington State); KIRO-TV (Seattle, Washington); Arlington County, Virginia; and the paid subscription service “send word now”. is free.  It is ad supported.  It provides notification of local, regional, national, and international emergencies.  It distributes via the Internet, e-mail, cell phones, pagers, and fax.  The site includes links for most states, counties, and local areas to allow a choice of localities. 

It provides information from a wide assortment of sources, for emergency management, disaster relief organizations, health and public safety organizations, weather services, schools, and non-profit and government agencies. It also provides messaging system products and services to corporate, government, and agency clients.   

The Regional Public Information Network (RPIN) in Washington State, is a free service to the central Puget Sound area.  RPIN collects information on street and highway closures, major transit disruptions, and weather events, and provides updates on agencies' responses. 

The public can sign up for e-mail alerts and pager headlines from RPIN partners, which includes ancillary information such as emergency preparedness tips. Users can select the types of alert by geographic area, and can subscribe to multiple receipt devices. 

KIRO-TV in Seattle, Washington, is a good example of a local TV station free e-mail alert subscription service.  The site is built and managed for KIRO by Internet Broadcasting, which provides Web site templates and hosted services for seventy TV news and information sites across the U.S.  Therefore, there may be similarities to other TV stations' sites.   

Consumers can choose their geographic location and delivery device (i.e. pager or cell phone).  A sample message from KIRO follows the basic message structure found in most e-mails.  The subject line is topical and clear, the message is brief, and a Web link is provided for further information.   

Arlington County, Virginia provides notification alerts for residents and businesses in Arlington County.  Text alerts are available via cell phones, pagers and e-mail.  Alerts are also sent via XM Satellite Radio. Users can choose from a wide variety of messages. Users subscribe through a free account with the Roam Secure Alert Network (RSAN).  RSAN also operates services for other municipalities in the metropolitan Washington D.C. area. 

Send word now is a paid service for alerting by SMS, e-mail and voice, for corporate and government clients.  It allows secure two-way communication in time-critical situations, and enables companies to set up message distribution to potentially thousands of users.  It also provides automated management and tracking features so companies can verify message delivery, log responses, and schedule repeat messages.      

End-User Observations 

Thanks to Donna Platt, Manager, Washington State 9-1-1/TTY Education Program, Department of Education, Hearing Speech and Deafness Center (HSDC) in Seattle, Washington.  Donna provided information about the services in the State of Washington, and shared some of the following observations as a subscriber to some of the services noted.  Only a few examples of actual uses of the services are noted. messages were usually cut in half and sent to the pager but came through full on e-mail.  There were too many messages for regions that users had not subscribed to, resulting in messages that were not relevant. In fact, that flaw has caused some users to unsubscribe from the service. 

More recently, messages were received on computer but not via pager, and that change was not initiated by any requested change of subscriber preferences.      

KOMO-TV in Seattle offers severe weather alerts with short, concise messages. However, alerts stopped coming last spring without explanation or change of user preferences.  The Web site does not note any discontinuation of service. 

KIRO-TV in Seattle offers severe weather alerts, Amber Alerts and national threat level advisories.  Most messages are similar to, but are shown in full.  Subscribers can sign up for “E-News” from the KIRO Web site.  When clicking on Web links from a pager, it takes time to find the right article and link to it.   

RPIN delivered no messages to the Sidekick device for several years, but messages were received on the Blackberry and e-mail.  More recently messages are now received on the Sidekick.  Clicking on the link shows the message within the screen.   

Seattle/King County Public Health messages were received on via pager and e-mail, but with the pager the full message is not shown within the screen; one side of the Web site page is truncated.      

Accessibility of Subscription Sites 

Web-based sign-up subscription sites should be universally accessible, properly formatted, and easy to use.  The ability for the user to provide display preferences could be part of the sign-up for future subscription management and delivery of alerts.  The sign-up process could adjust itself when the user finishes the accessibility preferences, to facilitate the rest of the sign-up process. 

All of the sites reviewed for this presentation needed improvement, and are far from compliant with Section 508.  Sites include the desktop application download page, (one of the local Boston TV stations), and the, “my weather” page.      

The Future of Text Alert Messaging 

To summarize a few areas, basic Section 508 and 255 compliance issues need to be addressed. Text-to-speech alternatives are needed.  Opportunities for peer-to-peer signing should be explored.  There will be push, pull, and two-way interactive services.  Digital broadcasting affords new opportunities, including the potential for ad hoc channels and services, and text display capabilities for HD radio. Podcasting is still a relatively new delivery platform to explore.  

The Access Alerts Project 

The goal of the Access Alerts project is to provide a blueprint for accessible emergency alerts, bringing together consumers, emergency management, and industry.  The project will develop and encourage adoption of standardized methods, systems and services to identify, filter and present content in ways that are meaningful to people with disabilities leading up to, during and after emergencies.


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