Naper Notify Learns Murphy’s Law of Mass Notification: Anything that Can Go Wrong, Will Go Wrong, Especially the Most Urgent of Notifications

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Mass notification or reverse notification sounds like a fairly good idea. A citizen can opt in to get government notifications about weather alerts, disaster emergencies, criminals at large, etc.

There’s one situation where it might prove very helpful in an emergency. Let’s say you’re sleeping in your bedroom, but the neighbor down the street has just lost control, and decides to start shooting up his house with a rifle. Some of the bullets are at risk of penetrating his wall and yours. You don’t hear the muffled gunshots, but you do hear your phone ringing and vibrating on the nightstand. It’s Naper Notify with a brief message to stay away from your windows because of “an incident” down the street. Police have a funny way of not telling many of the details of these incidents, such as the real truth: “your drunk neighbor is shooting indiscriminately in the direction of your house, you better take cover.”

The Cardinal has always been a little suspicious about the reliability of Mass Notification. The population of Naperville is 144,864. Suppose they have 24,000 subscribers, and all of them need to be notified. If a notification for a deadly leaking chlorine gas tanker were necessary, you wouldn’t want to be the 24,000th subscriber notified — even with some parallel processing.

It’s obvious Mass Notification should only be one tool in the toolbox.

Well today, the Chicago Tribune is reporting that Naperville’s Naper Notify apparently failed. Naper Notify lets a subscriber sign up to receive emergency and community messages through a preferred method of communication, which could include a cell phone, work phone, home phone, text message, email or more. Some of those subscribers in Naperville are complaining they didn’t get a notification following a Crash-and-Rob, beating, and manhunt. Some people called the police to find out what was happening regarding the search. The Chicago Tribune reports that residents told the Naperville Sun newspaper that “the only information conveyed was to keep doors (and) windows locked and children inside.”

Police set up a perimeter and began a house-to-house search following a Monday morning Crash-and-Rob crime, which also involved the beating of the victim. Two men bailed out of the getaway car when police were trying to stop them on Thornapple Drive just south of Aurora Avenue about two miles north of the initial Crash-and-Rob at Bailey Road and Shepherd Drive in Naperville. The suspects bail out location also happened to be about a block or two east of the police station. One was caught during the search, the other got away.

The search perimeter was roughly formed by Aurora Avenue on the north, West Street on the east, Oswego Road on the south and River Road on the west. The search also included portions of Naperville’s Buttonwood, Countryside and Devonshire neighborhoods, along with the unincorporated Green Acres and Lawn Meadow areas of DuPage County.

It can be assumed that there was some communication to determine what subscribers to notify, and they were probably subscribers connected to the perimeter areas mentioned. But how much valuable time does it take to determine those perimeter areas? Plus, the notification doesn’t take into account natural relationships of communication among people. For example, some families might live in two different neighborhoods. You might know your brother is taking a nap in the danger zone, but you might not get the notification because you live in an area two neighborhoods outside the perimeter.

Who determines whether the message should be citywide or just in a neighborhood. In the case of a possible dangerous suspect at large, that should probably be a citywide decision. For example, a friend could have picked up the suspect and they could be laughing it up in a Starbucks on the other side of town. For the scenario of the the neighbor shooting up his house at 3:00 a.m. — that could probably be a very limited area in the neighborhood.

Unfortunately it looks like the actual Naper Notify system “may have malfunctioned” and failed to alert residents about the robbery and the search that lasted most of the day. It’s obvious officials and residents shouldn’t overly rely on a technical system that could fail so miserably in a critical emergency.

One other security detail about Mass Notification messages: They should be coordinated with a verification. The official websites of communities should always have a time-stamped message or a link to a message on the city’s website front page that verifies that a Mass Notification has been sent out. The verification should also appear on the official social media sites — Facebook and Twitter. It is possible that terrorists, criminals or pranksters could spoof a Mass Notification to facilitate some type of terrorist act. A fake notification could tell people to gather at a certain location for evacuation. People should have the capability to verify the notification at the official city website, official Facebook timeline or official Twitter. Communities should make extra effort to market their official social media sites and also link to their social media sites from the official city website. It wouldn’t be too difficult for pranksters or terrorists to set up a fake social media account that could masquerade as an official city account, police account, or fire department account. Sound far-fetched? It’s already happened to a Chicagoland suburban fire department. A teen, who did not have malicious intent, set up a Twitter account that unintentionally duped people into believing that the account was an official fire department twitter account. There was an extensive collection of photos of new fire equipment put into service, incidents, and official press releases on the Twitter account. It wasn’t until stolen photos copied to the fake account were identified, that the account was discovered to be fake.

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