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Should U Go 2 Work?

Public Health - Seattle & King County employees who had opted in to a text message alert program, developed with support from an NWCPHP research project, received messages about building closures and modified work hours.

In a recent snowstorm, Public Health - Seattle & King County (PHSKC) employees who had opted in to a text message alert program, developed with support from an NWCPHP research project, received text messages about building closures and modified work hours.

February 28, 2012

During inclement weather, have you ever braved road conditions, only to find your workplace closed when you arrive? As a supervisor, have you needed to quickly alert employees of a power outage, a situation involving hazardous materials, or some other danger?

During a recent snowstorm in Seattle, Public Health - Seattle & King County (PHSKC) employees who had opted in to a text message alert program received text messages about building closures and modified work hours. The rare snowy weather provided a perfect opportunity to pilot the system that sent text alerts during five consecutive days of snow and ice. Employee response was enthusiastic. Communications Officer Hilary Karasz observed, “Employees appreciated that messages were as timely as possible and customized to their worksites.”

The PHSKC employee texting program was developed and implemented with support from a Preparedness and Emergency Response Research Center grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Employees initially received two email invitations in spring 2011 and two more invitations later in the year for winter weather preparedness messaging. More than 500 PHSKC employees—about a third of the workforce—opted in to the program.

Of the 175 employees who responded to a survey about the text alerts, 83 percent said the messages were relevant and helpful. Although employee advisories are also available on the web and through a telephone hotline, 70 percent of the respondents answered that on at least one occasion, they’d been uninformed until they received the text message alert. Some employees, especially those who lost Internet and telephone access due to power outages, expressed how grateful they were for the texting program.

There were glitches with the messaging program. While text messaging sends information almost instantaneously, it often takes time to make complex policy decisions about building closures and work schedules. On the first day of the storm, the initial text alert reached employees at 8:30 a.m., too late to catch some people already headed to work. After the first day, the timeliness and content of messages improved.

In addition to sending weather-related and emergency alerts to staff, PHSKC is exploring ways that mobile technology, and text messaging in particular, can be used to promote health, particularly among vulnerable populations. When asked if other public health departments should consider employee text messaging, Karasz responded, “We know that text is a powerful form of communication, particularly during an emergency. There is a lot for health departments to know about how to best employ this technology, but we believe it is worth the effort, given that most adults have a cell phone and want to get information this way.”

Through their research, PHSKC has developed considerable expertise concerning the logistics of implementing a texting program, how to maximize opt-in, and the legal and security implications of texting. Because they believe this information is important to public health departments, PHSKC is actively sharing what they have learned about texting. For more information and contact details please visit www.kingcounty.gov/depts/health/emergency-preparedness/text-messaging.aspx.

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