Avoid Alert Fatigue With Timely, Relevant Mass Messaging

Early one December morning, you wake up to your phone vibrating on the nightstand. There’s yet another “important” alert from your local emergency alert system: a frost advisory. You clear the notification. Yes, I know it’s cold out, you think. It’s winter — it’s supposed to be cold.

Every day, multiple times a day, millions of people engage in the same routine. Whether the alert comes from NOAA, a weather app or even Facebook, we’re likely to scan it, quickly dismiss it and get on with our days. But although they might seem like trivial inconveniences, such alerts aren’t harmless. Quite the opposite, in fact. The frequent alarms that are such an inescapable part of modern life are creating what experts call alert fatigue — one of the greatest threats to an organization’s emergency communications plan.

What Is Alert Fatigue?

Alert fatigue or alarm fatigue happens when someone is exposed to too many emergency notifications in a short period of time. After experiencing frequent alerts – which may or may not indicate real danger – a person becomes desensitized to whatever sensory information is supposed to grab their attention. A flashing light becomes a minor annoyance; a blaring alarm becomes white noise. As a result, the alert-fatigued individual starts to tune out genuine alerts. They have slowed reaction times or ignore the alerts altogether, putting themselves or others at risk of serious injury or death.

Alert fatigue was first observed in the healthcare field. In many hospitals, medical professionals and patients hear dozens – if not hundreds – of different alarms every day. In one hospital study, researchers recorded an average of 10.6 alarms per hour. What’s making all that noise? The beeps and chirps of heart monitors, ventilators, dialysis machines, and other kinds of medical equipment.

While designed to save patients’ lives, these alerts frequently don’t indicate real medical issues. Design podcast 99% Invisible reports that more often than not, “audible alerts are just false alarms”:

“Sometimes there is a loose connection or a temporary blip in a patient’s vital signs. In the end, few alarms are productive, alerting people to actual problems or conveying comprehensible and useful information. Still, they saturate the hospital soundscape.”

As you might imagine, alert fatigue can have serious consequences. Studies show that frequent false-positive patient alarms cause nurses to stop paying attention to the noises, creating deadly gaps in service.

Alert Fatigue and the Paradise Fire

Alert fatigue isn’t limited to hospitals. It’s also been implicated in exacerbating weather disasters and other situations that call for emergency communications. When the deadly Camp Fire tore through containment lines and roared toward the town of Paradise, California last November, county residents received a warning from the local weather service: with record dry fuel and hot winds, there was an “extremely critical” threat. In other words, weather conditions were perfect for fire to spread, taking homes and lives with it.

The trouble was that by November, the county’s residents had already received eleven different fire danger warnings that year, and all had come to nothing. Why would they think that day would be any different?

They had alert fatigue.

As Axios science editor Andrew Freedman writes: “Knowing that the conditions are right is one thing. It's another to learn that a wall of flames is actually barreling toward your house.” By the time the residents of Paradise realized that what they had received was an alert they needed to heed, it was too late for many of them.

How Can You Overcome Alert Fatigue?

What we need are not more alerts but more effective ones. The key to avoiding alert fatigue is to think less like a hospital and more like a friend checking in during a crisis. Trade quantity for quality, and ditch the constant, all-hands-on-deck alerts for targeted, specific, context-appropriate messages.

Freedman writes that while it’s difficult to produce specific warnings due to the complex web of agencies, departments and individuals involved, local emergency officials aren’t giving up. In California at least, they’re considering expanding their use of Wireless Emergency Alerts to produce more actionable notifications before, during and after incidents.

Businesses can and should follow their lead. Don’t wait until the proverbial wall of flames hits your doorstep – or worse, inundate your employees with frequent alerts that cause them to tune out. Instead, leverage a smart mass notification system and practice effective emergency communication:

  • Think about your audience. Who really needs to receive the alert? What do they need to know? An effective mass notification system will allow you to notify the people affected by an incident – not everyone, every time – by targeting specific groups (defined by role, team, location, or any other attribute). Some tools also provide geofencing capabilities that allow you to quickly target specific locations by outlining them on a map.
  • Use clear and concise language. Stick to the facts as much as possible. Send accurate, meaningful updates, ideally with actionable information for the recipient. If it doesn’t help them, don’t send it.
  • Determine the right times to issue alerts and updates. Try not to send messages too frequently. In fact, the fewer updates, the better. An effective series of alerts often consists of just three messages: 1) a notification of the situation, 2) an update with an estimated recovery time, and 3) an all-clear.
  • Distribute messages on multiple channels. Don’t rely on one form of communication to get your message across. Some people may not check their email inboxes; others may miss texts or phone calls. A good mass notification system can broadcast alerts via multiple means of communication.

Every year, the same alert fatigue happens in areas affected by common weather conditions, be they severe winter storms, wildfires or other situations that precipitate repeated alerts. But alert fatigue doesn’t have to be a fact of modern life. When your business depends on engaging your team, you need emergency alerts that cut through the clutter and a mass notification system that can easily reach the team members you need with the right message at the right time.

Now is the time to optimize your emergency business communications to avoid alert fatigue. With the right tools in place, you can ensure alarms do what they’re supposed to do. Eliminate spamming – and make sure every alert matters and resonates with the people it needs to reach.

Our experts can show you how AlertFind is engineered to avoid alert fatigue. Get a demo.

You are well on your way toward protecting your staff and organization.

Take the next step toward protecting your organization by learning more about emergency notification systems and the vital role they play in your emergency preparedness plan.