Using Highways During Evacuation Operations for Events with Advance Notice

Routes to Effective Evacuation Planning Primer Series

Produced in collaboration with the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office (ITS JPO)

Communication Tools

With technology changing rapidly, there are many more tools available to successfully execute an evacuation. But it is also important to use some “tried and true” methods that may not be considered “high tech” but that serve a useful purpose depending on the circumstances of the evacuation. For example, if there are widespread power outages some tools may not be available for communications with the public and among the emergency response teams. Perhaps the most important message is that governments need a variety of tools at their disposal and the ability to choose which to use in an evacuation.

The following provides a list of potential communication tools available for this purpose:

Traveler Information-Dial 511—As previously noted, many States have robust 511 or other telephone traveler information systems. These systems may be used to aid evacuees who have access to landline or cellular telephones prior to or during the evacuation.

Loud Speakers—Many communities have loud speakers mounted on posts in the community that can be used to broadcast information. Likewise, many public service vehicles, like police cars, can broadcast information over a loud speaker as they move through an area. Both can be valuable tools depending on whether providing information in a specific geographic area (post-mounted speakers) or in a larger area where information needs to be provided quickly (a roving vehicle with a speaker).

Siren Systems—Some communities, particularly those areas that are prone to tornados or tsunamis, have siren systems, which can be used to alert people to take immediate action to ensure their safety.

Handouts—Handouts take many forms such as flyers distributed at a highway rest area or on a transit vehicle, information posted on bulletin boards, or informational pamphlets with preparedness tips such as those often provided by public agencies at the start of hurricane season. The goal is to provide the public with the information that governments want to share, whether it is in preparation for a hurricane, or as part of an evacuation to provide information about alternate highway routes or where to find food and shelter. Handouts should be provided in a variety of languages in accordance with the demographics of the area.

REVERSE 911®—This system allows government agencies with this technology to place thousands of telephone calls simultaneously to residents with local phone service. These calls can be used as a public warning system to alert residents of the need to act in an emergency. These systems are designed to send thousands of calls within 30 minutes. Depending on system capabilities, officials can target messages to residents in specific geographic areas affected by varying levels of evacuation. When using these systems, special arrangements need to be made for the hearing impaired (Telephone Device for the Deaf is an optional feature), those unable to understand the contents of messages, and those properties without telephones.

Roadside Information Locations—There are many locations where motorists may receive information during an evacuation, including rest stops, welcome centers, turnpike service plazas, toll facilities, visitor information centers, hotels, restaurants, and gas stations. Information can also be provided to truckers at weigh stations, truck stops, and agricultural inspection stations as well as through trucking associations.

VMS—These include those already on the highway and portable signs that can be pre-staged and moved to routes along the highway. VMS can broadcast evacuation route and shelter information.

Media—The media can play a critical role in an evacuation due to their ability to reach large numbers of people simultaneously. The media may be television, radio, and newspaper including the Emergency Alert System (EAS) as well as media outlet’s websites. It is important for the government to provide timely and accurate information to the media so that they can share it as soon as possible with their audience. It is also important for the media to know when regular updates of information should occur to ensure they are prepared to share it when available. A cross-section of media is also important. For example, some radio stations cater to different age groups or people who speak other languages, so a wider selection of media, increases the opportunity to reach a wider audience. It is also important on the television broadcast media to provide the information through a person who provides sign language interpretation as well as closed captioned information for the hearing impaired.

EAS – The EAS enables the President with the capability to provide immediate communications and information to the general public at the National, State, and local levels The EAS may be used to provide heads of State and local governments or their designated representatives with a means of emergency communication with the public in their State or local area. The EAS overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), includes certain AM, FM, Low-power FM and TV broadcast stations; Class A television stations; Low-power TV stations; cable systems; wireless cable systems; and other entities as agreed to by the FCC.

Public Access Cable Television—Many local governments operate cable channels and can use such channels to broadcast information to the public.

Television Text Services and the Internet—This tool is not for emergency alerts, but is useful for posting detailed information that would be communicable by emergency calls or broadcasts.

Organizational Public Address and E-mail Systems—Messages can reach a large number of staff quickly.

Cell Phones—Today’s cell phone technology allows information to be broadcast directly to many cell phone users based upon their subscription to a specific service, or allows the users to provide information both verbally and through photos to emergency responders, as happened with the London subway bombing in 2005. Examples range from some transit systems sending information on when the next bus should be arriving at a given location to several companies providing real time traffic information to their subscribers. This real time information could be very useful during an evacuation. In addition, some companies are exploring the use of GPS to pinpoint drivers and provide specific information, such as an evacuation route, directly to their cell phone in an emergency situation. Cell phone alerts, voice and text, can also be used to notify government emergency management staff and elected officials of the need to respond to an impending emergency situation.

Call Centers—Many agencies provide a toll-free hotline for people to call during an emergency to receive information. The hotline may be used to provide evacuation route information, shelter locations, or other information important to evacuees. Often these numbers are the same as the agency’s general information number, but the agency increases the number of staff available to respond to inquiries during times of emergency. The call centers should also be equipped to respond to the needs of the hearing impaired with the appropriate devices such as Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD).