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Communicating across generations in an emergency​​

Feb. 9​, 2017

HSEM Deputy Director Kevin Reed introduces a cross-generational panel on emergency communication.
Photo: HSEM Deputy Director Kevin Reed introduces a cross-generational panel that answered questions about how best to communicate with them in an emergency.​​​​


You’re sitting at home, reading a book or watching TV, when the lights go out. What happened? What do you do next – and most importantly, where do you go for information? The answer to that last question may depend in part on how old you are.

That’s what emergency managers examined this week at a panel discussion held at the 52nd Annual Governor’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management conference. The panel was made up of five citizens of ages ranging from college to retirees. Emergency managers wanted to know how each generation tends to gather emergency information and how they respond to the standard emergency communication methods: the internet-based Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) alerts, wireless emergency alerts for cell phones, outdoor siren activations and weather warnings/watches.

Here are the general findings:

  • College through early 30s: Younger generations are very reliant on their cell phones. They verify weather alerts with trusted apps and news sources and consult family and friends for next steps. They generally don’t have land lines or cable TV.

  • 40s and 50s: This middle generation isn't as dependent on cell phones or the internet. But they, too, verify with trusted apps if they hear warning sirens or receive an alert on their phone, and will turn on the radio or TV to get additional instructions. Some of them have land lines; most have cable TV.

  • Retirees: The older generation often turns to cell phones first for information, but if they feel inundated, they’re less likely to pay attention to mobile alerts. They don’t watch much TV, but they do listen to the radio.

Keep in mind that, during an emergency, cell and internet service could be disrupted. If those are your two main ways to get information, what do you do? Your best defense is preparedness, so make a plan and a kit. That way you’re less likely to be reliant on local responders.

If you do get an alert on your cell phone, feel free to verify it but keep in mind that it’s an official alert from a trusted source, such as the state or your local emergency manager (want to know who yours is? Find out here​). And apps are great, but don’t discount traditional sources like TV and radio. Minnesota’s emergency managers will often work with local media in the event of an emergency to communicate the most up-to-date information and action steps.

Saving lives and minimizing damage in an emergency is all about getting the right information to the right people at the right time—and knowing how those people gather information is a vital part of the process.​