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Seen & Heard

Rethinking Emergency Alerts

Katherine GraysonSometimes the obvious eludes us all.

It was September and the residents of a midsize condominium complex in a coastal Florida suburb were still in shock as they tried to locate their belongings after a devastating storm had ripped through their area late in the night, with little advance warning. One woman was sloshing through what was once her living room, weeping. Her cat was missing.

"The winds came from nowhere; most of us were asleep when it hit," she cried.

"I wasn’t sleeping," offered her neighbor, who was helping search for the cat. "But I didn’t know how to warn anyone. I ran over here and banged on the door, but that didn’t help the others..."

On what was left of the pool patio, five condo board members were holding a meeting to come up with emergency alert solutions that could be implemented before the building was hit again. There were many elderly in the building, and it was only by some miracle that no one had been seriously injured.

"Maybe we should initiate a call chain," one woman suggested. "I could call Sid, then he could call Charlene-" Other board members were shaking their heads; the consensus was that it would take too long. "Or runners could go from door to door, alerting people."

"I don’t think anyone here can run that fast," said a man with a small bandage on his forehead. "Besides, in an emergency, that could be dangerous-runners could get hurt." Everyone nodded.

"How about e-mail?" a second woman piped up. "My grandson taught me how to do it. If you send me your e-mail addresses, I could notify you all."

"What’s e-mail?" said an elderly man.

"But what if we’re all sleeping, or not on computers?" said the first woman.

The board president looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, "What we need is some kind of universal alert that goes out to everyone at the same time- something that everyone would see."

"Hey! We all watch TV!" said the second woman, excitedly. "What if we bought one of those closed-circuit systems, and sent out a message across the bottom of everyone’s screen?"

"I wonder how much that would cost?" asked the man with the bandaid on his head; he was an accountant.

"Who cares, if it gets the word out?" said the woman. "It could flash, ‘storm on way...proceed to exit...’"

"What if a storm came after 9?" asked the elderly gent. "I’m asleep after that."

"In that case, we could send out a runner," snapped the woman. "Or you could just keep your TV on in bad weather," she added curtly. The man looked hurt.

"Can the warning have sound, too, in case I fall asleep?" he asked meekly.

"That will cost more money," said the accountant.

"But at least it would wake me up, like the fire alarm does," said the old man. Slowly, the other board members turned to stare at him. He blinked back at them. "What did I say?" he asked.

The next day, the board met with the fire alarm vendor, who showed the members how they could program the system for special alert sirens and even recorded warnings. Then the board held drills for all of the building residents and everyone practiced how to set off the alarm, how to respond to the various alerts, how to assist each other, how to get additional help, and where to meet inside or outside of the building. Then the board went out to lunch.

--Katherine Grayson, Editor-In-Chief
What have you seen and heard? Send to: [email protected].

About the Author

Katherine Grayson is is a Los Angeles based freelance writer covering technology, education, and business issues.

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