Wednesday, April 13, 2011

DC's Emergency Alert System Is Broken, But It Can Be Fixed

by Bill Adler
Tweeting at @billadler

When I started to follow DC Homeland Security on Twitter, I had high hopes. I wanted to be alerted to emergencies, plain and simple. Things like tornado watches, bomb scares, widespread power outages. Instead, DC Homeland Security,  @DC_HSEMA, is mostly traffic bulletins. For that I can turn on AM radio.

Alert DC, the District of Columbia's emergency email notification system, isn't any better. Alert DC describes itself this way: "The Alert DC system provides rapid text notification and update information during a major crisis or emergency." But what is it? Again, mostly street closure announcements. Here's what Alert DC sent out this morning: "Street Closure: Automobile accident with injuries on Southbound 295 at the Pennsylvania Ave Exit both lanes are blocked at this time. Please use an alternate route to avoid delays." Hardy an emergency.

This is notification creep, and it happens often. A system starts out with the best of intentions. Then, for a variety of reasons, including that it isn't sending out many messages, the system adds features to its mission. And then these new features crowd out the network's original --and important-- purpose.

There may be some question about whether something's an emergency or not: Perhaps that suspicious package found at the Capitol South Metro station constitutes an emergency, perhaps, not. But notices like the one that Alert DC sent out a couple of weeks ago, "Update in reference to motor vehicle accident at Georgia Avenue and Piney Branch Avenue NW; the accident is cleared and streets are open to traffic," definitely don't fall into the category of being an emergency.  (You can get traffic alerts from the District's Department of Transportation, or by visiting DDOT's website.)

DC Homeland Security's Twitter feed and Alert DC's email notices are now mostly useless services, at least as far as emergency notices go. What few emergency notices are sent out by DC HSEMA and Alert DC are lost in the clutter of street closures and other non-vital announcements. What DC HSEMA and Alert DC need to do is simple and straightforward: stop sending out traffic messages and alerts that are not an emergency. DC's Emergency alert system should have a single purpose: emergencies.

No comments:

Post a Comment