Philbrick: Communicating during an emergency
Submerged cars near William Street Park in San Jose after the February 2017 flood. File photo.

    How do you know a fire or flash flood is approaching, and when do you make the decision to evacuate? How do you know how soon to leave, where to go and whether to drive or take the train? Creating and dispersing emergency alerts that bring accurate and timely information while motivating action is challenging. Thus, identifying and implementing best practices in communicating emergency scenario choices can reduce improper or delayed action, and as a result reduce harm.

    How do cities and other agencies ensure the community receives vital, lifesaving information in a timely manner? Recent research explores the current state of California disaster communications and the importance of how agencies communicate about evacuation during emergencies—like recent storms or during the 2020 wildfires, including two adjacent to San Jose that burned for weeks. In reviewing these and other emergencies, the research team uncovered more than 25 best practices that can be used by public information officers to improve the public’s response to community notifications during emergencies and disasters.

    These findings are especially critical because research shows people frequently spend time “milling” between notification and action—they check in with friends and family, read or watch the news and search through social media to decide whether the alert applies to them and how to react. This best practices study indicates the importance of recognizing the crucial role social media and online resources play in people’s lives, as well as the related need for public agencies to adopt technology enhancements to improve alerting at the beginning of disasters, which often strike with little warning.

    Communication efforts must also ensure the public, especially those traveling within the area directly affected by the disaster, receive complete, accurate and consistent information about access to services, evacuation vehicles and routes, transportation and more through multiple means—and in multiple languages—including traditional media outlets, websites, social media, email lists and other available resources.

    We can draw on lessons learned from both manmade and natural disasters. For example, a study examining the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks investigated how the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York City Transit, Port Authority and other transit systems responded to the events of 9-11, as well as how the New York City Office of Emergency Management coordinated response and recovery operations. Despite unforeseen circumstances, communications failures and moments of unprecedented loss, the managers and employees of  New York’s transportation system performed with “extraordinary effectiveness.”

    This report emphasized the importance of how rail can play a crucial role in evacuation by efficiently transporting people out of affected areas, sometimes being able to bypass traffic, and also highlighted other lessons that local governments and transportation agencies can implement in emergencies, such as the use of Metropolitan Transportation Authority heavy equipment specialized for transit construction and maintenance used in rescue efforts at ground zero and in restoring the city’s infrastructure.

    Transit agencies clearly have a role to play in disaster response and should consider how buses, trains and light rail could be used to get emergency personnel where they need to be during an active emergency, and evacuate people when conditions necessitate restrictions on roads or private automobile use.

    Times of crisis require the best use of our resources in the absolute worst moments. All forms of transportation are critical to saving lives, restoring communities and reestablishing some sense of normalcy.

    San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues. Her columns appear every first Wednesday of every other month.

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