Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The old-fashioned way

With the explosion of social media and smartphones, there has been a growing expectation that police departments and 911 Centers ought to send tailored alerts of potential risks directly to citizens and organizations, such as schools, businesses, assisted living centers, and just ordinary citizens. Last night, a local TV station ran a story about this, interviewing the proprietor of a day care center who was unhappy that she wasn't notified of a shooting that happened at 3:50 AM on Sunday morning a short distance from her business.

There are many software systems out there for delivering mass notifications. The problem is not the lack of technology, rather it is the lack of the infrastructure necessary to exploit the technology. Specifically, it would require personnel. Essentially, someone would need to be dedicated to the task of listening to the radio and watching the flow in the computer-aided dispatch center. This person would need to make a determination about which incidents need to trigger a public alert, to whom it should be sent, and what the content should be. He or she would not only need to compose the alert, but would also need to determine when an "all clear" rescinding the alert is appropriate.

This is no small task. It would require someone with exceptionally good knowledge about the dynamics of police events in the field. Not very many robberies, for example, represent an immediate risk to people in the surrounding area. Many reports are belated, and in many cases the assailant is known to the victim and was long gone before the police were even called. Conversely, a simple hit-and-run crash could turn into an emergency event, if the wanted felon involved in the collision flees the scene on foot armed with a pistol and disappears into the surrounding neighborhood. Although technology can help, this is something that cannot be entirely automated. Human judgement is needed to distinguish the incidents that require notifications from the background noise.

Moreover, a mass notification system like this would need to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. That requires about 5.5 full-time equivalent employees. In a low-volume environment, you might be able to use employees who multi-task, performing other duties but able to drop what they are doing to attend to alerts as needed, a sergeant, for instance, or a dispatcher. That's not going to happen reliably in a busy 911 Center where employees are frequently working mandatory overtime, and where its a struggle just to fill the seats. Consider that during a big event that might suggest an alert, the dispatchers and police officers are especially busy.

If it's so difficult, you might ask, why are universities able to manage such systems, notifying their students and staffs of risky business? Aside from the fact that universities are generally mighty well funded, the simple fact is that your typical university police department is not very busy. As an example, the University of Nebraska Police Department handled 13 incidents yesterday. The Lincoln Police Department handled 334.

I'm not saying "never," but the impediments to such notification systems are substantial. Recently, we have been looking at various notification systems, and trying to brainstorm about how we might possibly incorporate these into our operations. If we had the personnel to do so, we might even use something as simple as the police department's Twitter feed, but it isn't staffed or monitored constantly, and we don't have the people to do so. We've also been considering the feasibility of launching a real time crime center for Lincoln, which might be an ideal location for a public notification system.

In the days before Twitter and Facebook, people turned to the news media in order to stay abreast of things going on in the community. Folks actually used to listen to AM radio, and could follow the news reports of the Martian invasion and take appropriate precautions. If we had some big deal going on and needed to get the word out quickly, a couple of phone calls to the radio stations were obligatory. In every news room in Lincoln, whether print, radio, or television, assignment editors and reporters are listening to police scanners right now. These days, they are often tweeting about interesting or emergent transmissions they hear in near real-time.

For the moment, your workaround might be to simply follow the Twitter feeds of a few of the local news outlets if you really need to know what's breaking bad at any given moment. Rest assured that if we thought a day care, senior center, business, or residence was in imminent risk of harm, we'd be making concerted efforts to notify you the old-fashioned way: door to door, and also through the news media.


Steve said...

That's one of the problems of many people these days; they think they are owed or have rights to many things, like a good job, a house, a nice car, a smart phone, even health. Sorry, no one owes you any of those things. You go out and earn them, or in the case of health, you take care of yourself and don't do things that are bad for you.

I actually think there is almost too much in the way of immediate news and notifications about every little thing that happens. As you said, even a robbery of a convenience store does not likely pose a threat to the surrounding neighborhood, yet we routinely hear of schools on lock-down because someone was spotted with a gun half a mile away. Seeing as how "lock-down" at most schools is nothing more than huddling everyone in a corner and in no way prevents anyone from getting into a school and shooting people if they are so inclined, I don't see the point. We're frightening our children and their parents for no good reason.

In that regard, instant notification could actually do more harm than good by bringing in the rubberneckers, the concerned parents, and others to an area where ideally we should be trying to keep people away from.

Anonymous said...

I usually know what is going on (a little before a few people do) because I do subscribe to the local tv/newspapers notifications, so usually as soon as they know about something, I get an alert. Maybe the daycares could do this, and assign someone to keep the notifications on their phone turned on, or take turns, so they are aware as soon as possible that something is going on.

Anonymous said...

Steve, in regards to your very first statement, the thought that everyone is given an equal chance in life to "earn" it is very closed minded. Yes that is the American dream and the ones that are capable of obtaining it are commended. However a lot of that is God given at birth ie.. smarts, athletics, physical and mental health. And yes there are those on the other hand that work damn hard to succeed and do succeed in life. However the one thing that most, dare is say Right wingers forget is the people who are unable to work hard or succeed. There are becoming more and more as the population grows.
Yes I hate the lazy bum that don't want to work and suck the system dry. Yes I hate ones who take advantage of the system. Yes I hate the ones who think everything is owed to them.
However, those numbers are tiny compared to the people who are born mentally challenged, physically challenged or just not smart enough to get through college.
These people should not have to live in poverty. This Country should afford them the ability to have a decent place to live. Be able to afford a modest transportation and health care. Many people go broke and bankrupt over medical bills. Yes those that work hard and have the ability to succeed should live beyond the average but somehow the average in this Country has fallen to the poorest of people. I made $8.00 an hour at a full time job in 1989. I could barely afford an apartment, old car and feed myself let alone a family. Here it is 27 years later and people are trying to live on those same wages. Not fair at all.
The trickle down affect will never and has never worked. People at the top are too greedy. Is it really fair for a company to pay it's CEO's million and billions of dollars and only pay their employees peanuts? I think not. Some do but that is not what this Country is suppose to be. Greed is what is going to doom this Country if people don't start caring about the less fortunate.

Steve said...

Anon 2:20

Not really the place for a debate about this. My only point was in regard to the operator of the daycare who felt it was someone else's responsibility to make sure she was made aware of current events. Had she gotten a phone call or woken from her sleep by someone at the door at 3 o'clock in the morning, she probably would have been pissed off about that. Her daycare was probably closed on Sundays anyway.

I only mentioned the other things to illustrate the types of things that many people feel are their right, but they're wrong. Yes, people who truly are unable to earn these things for themselves deserve some help. That's what friends, family, and charities are for, and yes the government can help. The problem there is determining which people are truly needy, and which simply are too lazy to work.

BD Softley said...

Forget taylored notifications, I would be happy if LPD would just make an effort to respond to calls for service.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 2:10, Well said. I admire your compassion and common sense.

Anonymous said...

Steve, regarding your statement "people who truly are unable to earn these things for themselves deserve some help. That's what friends, family, and charities are for, and yes the government can help. The problem there is determining which people are truly needy, and which simply are too lazy to work".

There is a whole middle section of people you are leaving out and that section is getting bigger and bigger. That section is the area between the ones who are unable to work and the ones who are lazy. I work in the poorest part of town. There are huge amounts of people who work hard 40-50hrs a week and get paid wages that are really crap. Those people also need Government assistance etc. And since most of their families and friends are poor too, well not much help coming from them. I imagine that collecting from charities when you are able to work full time for your family is a bit embarrassing. I mean really, a person wants to be able to support their family. A lot of these people aren't capable of going to college.
There is a big misconception that anyone can earn the American dream. Not anymore. A person that is working full time and busting their butt should be able to at least afford a reasonable place to live and own a reasonable piece of transportation and should be able to get health benefits. I'm afraid $10 and hour doesn't cut it.

Anonymous said...

I subscribe to reports from a website that gives summaries of LPD incident reports a day or two after they are filed. They aren't affiliated with the department or the city.

They send me email daily reports of everything their system identifies as happening within a half mile of my home address. It's reassuring that notable incidents are pretty rare in my neighborhood.

Tom Casady said...


We provide the data to, and have done business with the parent company for 16 years. Glad you like the service!