There’s nothing like running for office to bring up issues of emergency communication, and how it can be improved.
I live in an area that’s adjacent to Philadelphia and Wilmington, DE, but as a result, it’s also largely overlooked by major media markets. We have a patchwork of local newspapers and websites, but there’s no single “newspaper of record” or single TV or Radio station for this area to rely on for the best information. As a result, many times the best and most up to date information is being shared by email and Facebook.
Kennett Township has done a great job in recent emergencies, including one from this past weekend involving a water main break, of sending out information and updates via their email newsletter system. The Borough of Kennett Square has not done as good a job in making sure residents were updated with information regarding the problem, and residents are still asking on Facebook whether the boiling of water restrictions are still in place. Even though schools and businesses were allowed to reopen on time on Monday, there hasn’t been an “all clear” or an update on any ongoing water testing, and folks are getting nervous.
The State of Delaware has done a great job in embracing social media- through Facebook and Twitter especially, in letting folks know about road closures, emergencies, and providing timely updates so folks aren’t left with questions.
We need to do something similar here in Pennsylvania, especially for more rural/suburban areas like those out in Chester and Lancaster counties. While electronic phone trees can be helpful, many people have opted out of traditional land lines, and this would make a text/cellular phone alert system a better alternative and compliment to social media alerts. Individuals could opt in or out, but would receive a simple text message about local emergencies, updates and all clear messages as needed. These systems are not hugely expensive, but could do a much better job than current communication options, especially for the upcoming winter, when we might again face weather related emergencies.
Now that we have a more fractured media environment, getting the attention of the public in emergencies is harder than ever. However, with a little planning, it’s possible to get more direct messages to people, when they need it, and increase their satisfaction with their government at the same time. It’s not a perfect system- you will miss some folks without cell phones. However, the Pew Research Foundation reports that 91% of American adults now have a cell phone and use it for more than just making calls, giving local townships the potential to notify at least 91% of the population through this channel- much more effective than the local newspaper readership, I’m afraid.
It’s time to start leveraging the digital technology available to us to make governmental communications more timely, and to reduce the door to door approach that is otherwise required. if we can use this technology to deliver ads for discounts at Starbuck’s, surely it’s time to start looking into these systems to provide important updates to our communities in emergencies. I wish I knew what we were waiting for.