Seen & Heard
Rethinking Emergency Alerts
- By Katherine Grayson
Sometimes 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
"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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katherine Grayson is is a Los Angeles based freelance writer covering technology,
education, and business issues.