The skies are dark and the air is eerily still. You’re driving down a deserted country road, heading north. Every single station on the radio comes in patchy, at best. Suddenly your smartphone lights up. You’ve received an alert that indicates a tornado has touched down about 40 miles ahead. A quick glace reveals a weather map with the funnel’s direction and a warning from the National Weather Service. You immediately hit the brakes and change course, avoiding the tornado’s path rather than driving into its eye.
When hazards present themselves, public safety officials can find it challenging to disseminate pertinent information to the public. Luckily, new technology urges us to consider a lot of “What ifs.” What if commuters traveling towards I-35W in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, 2007, were able to change routes and avoid the bridge collapse that claimed the lives of 13 people? This year on April 4, a gunman went on a rampage at Oikos University in Oakland, Calif., killing six students and a receptionist. What if others walking the campus that day had somehow received a real-time notification telling them not only of the active shooter, but his whereabouts, his description, and up-to-the-minute instructions?
What if we all were given an extra opportunity to avoid danger? Thanks to new software, including a large rumble in the field of smartphone technology, we may be able to access warnings like these and much more.
Planning for the unknown
The island of Key West in the Straits of Florida is about four miles long and two miles wide. The popular vacation hot spot is a mere 90 nautical miles to Havana, Cuba. Forty-two bridges connect Key West to the cluster of inland states. Once a fairly self-sufficient region with its own power generation, technological updates in the past 20 years have actually made the territory more dependent on the rest of the United States for things like water and power.
“If a bridge goes out, then we have to really scramble to get our contingencies ready to go,” says Craig Marson, Key West’s emergency management director. Because of the area’s location, population and exposure to ripping hurricanes, cooperation is essential to managing a thorough disaster response and implementing a successful evacuation. City planners and public safety personnel meet constantly to draw and re-draw plans, as well as collaborate with neighboring organizations. “We have a lot of cooperative work, whether it’s through a handshake, or establishing memorandums of understanding or memorandums of agreement with other partners,” says Marson, “Because we can become so potentially isolated, we rely on each other very heavily to develop plans and activate plans for emergency response.”
Police, fire and EMS teams in the area recently held a drill for a potential near-shore oil spill, similar to what might happen to the deep water horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. In attendance were NOAA, the National Marine Sanctuary, the Interior Department, Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA, Weather Service, Coast Guard, and others.
In the event a hurricane hits or a bridge closes, Marson says they rely heavily on the city’s website and a cable television provider to get information to the public. They also have a contract with the private provider CodeRED ECN Emergency Communications Network, which gives city employees three methods of contact: a landline, a cell phone and text messaging. They’ve recently added a web-based component where employees can receive e-mail notifications, as well. The city employs approximately 400 to 600 people. With hurricane season picking up in June and July, Marson says they anticipate using the new program quite a bit in emergency hurricane drills, and even in preparation for the region’s famous entertainment draws like Fantasy Fest in October.