Getting to ‘Know’: Tools Helping DOTs Reach People During Emergencies

Winter is coming and for state DOTs that means preparing to clear roads and assist motorists. Public information campaigns for years have focused on helping motorists “know before you go” by checking web sites and apps for the latest road condition and weather information. Additionally, officials have urged motorists to winterize their vehicles and to carry emergency supplies.

Traffic backed up on Interstate 5 in Vancouver, Wash., in Feb. 2019. Courtesy WSDOT licensed under CC BY 2.0.

But sometimes things happen – a sudden storm or natural disaster – that are so unforeseen that the transportation system is tied up and motorists are stranded. What communication strategies are in place for those situations?

It can be tough leaning on broadcast and social media. Those are generally one-way communication channels. Information goes out, but unless someone is monitoring calls into the radio and TV stations, or scanning through the social media channels, there is not much information coming back to the emergency response agencies.

According to the National Operations Center of Excellence, Pennsylvania’s 511PA Connect service provides for two-way communications with drivers who are actually stuck in back ups. The technology integrates with FEMA’s wireless emergency alerting system through the INRIX Highway Emergency Link Platform (HELP) to push information to all mobile phones in a specific, narrowly defined area. Motorists are instructed to visit 511PAConnect.com to register for updates on the closure. Those who register are plotted on a map and that gives the emergency managers a better view of the size and scope of the trapped queue.

When the situation is broader than a single roadway corridor, a few state DOTs are experimenting with a new Facebook tool called “local alerts.” Facebook announced in August 2019 that it was expanding its local alerts feature, which allows local governments to send alerts to people in specific geographic areas. Once a participating local government marks a post as a local alert, the information is available to Facebook users in the affected geographic area. The information also is listed in Facebook’s “Today In” page, which collects community news and information.

Facebook said in its announcement that more than 350 local governments have used the local alerts in a range of emergency situations and that the local alerts would be available to all local governments and first responders by the end of the year.

Author: Lloyd Brown

I am the director of communications and marketing for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. I enjoy running marathons and triathlons, playing guitar and spending time with family. My professional interest is in how social media and new technology shapes the communication relationship between government and the general public. I have a Master’s degree in Communications and Leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Washington State University.

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