Office of Operations
21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies

7.7 Informing People of the Need to Evacuate

People are not always informed of the need to evacuate during an incident. For example, during the evacuation of Graniteville, South Carolina, although 5,400 residents were evacuated, many were left behind.

In addition, the San Francisco Chronicle article “Deadly Chlorine Gas Gone—But Fear Hangs Over Hard-Hit Town: Some Residents Warily Return Home After Train Wreck” reported: “Rhonda Smith described gazing out at emergency workers whizzing back and forth in safety suits, and waking her children to tell them she loved them. She had no car at her house and was waiting for somebody to stop by to ask if she was safe; no one came until more than 18 hours after the crash. ‘I don’t even know how to explain the feeling,’ she said.”

The following are some of the tools that can be used to inform the public of the need to evacuate.

Cable Television – Local cable services can be a tool to provide notification of an evacuation.

The Compendium: Graduate Student Papers on Advanced Surface Transportation Systems: Application of ITS Technology to Hurricane Evacuation Routes reported that in Galveston, Texas, “the Emergency Management Coordinator has access to the only cable provider on the island. He has the power to override all programming to alert the public of a recommended evacuation.”

Not all potential evacuees may have access to cable television, but this is one of several existing low-cost tools for notification.

Email Notification and Phone Alert Rings – Another tool is the use of email notification and a telephone alert ring. When there is a need to evacuate and people have signed up for an email emergency notification service, an email message notifying the need to evacuate could be sent quickly. Phone alert rings also serve the same purpose, except phone numbers in a geographic area can be targeted

For example, according to the Federal Highway Administration Transportation Evacuation Planning and Operations Workshops 2004 presentation “How the Big Easy Became the Worst Possible Hurricane Disaster,” the State of Louisiana has “identified 180 key decision makers who need weather information, [with] automatic emails alerting them of the weather and alert rings selected by them” for phone calls that need to be made.

Emergency Alert System – Emergency alert systems can use a variety of ways to communicate with people needing to evacuate, such as transmitting messages via television, radios, pagers, and other digital devices.

For example, the City of Denver uses an emergency alert system to communicate to the public. According to the American City and County article “Community Evacuation: Ensuring Safe Passage,” the Office of Emergency Management uses the emergency alert system, which replaced the conventional emergency broadcast system. Using digital technology, the emergency alert system can transmit live or recorded messages to broadcast media and to specially equipped consumer televisions, radios, pagers, and other digital devices. The emergency alert system also allows unattended media to receive and transmit emergency messages automatically.

Reverse 911® – According to the 2004 Annual Hazards Research and Applications Workshop: Natural Hazards Center presentation “Transportation and Evacuation Issues in Emergencies: S04-3,” “A relatively new type of public warning, Reverse 911®, is tailored to communicate a warning message to as many as 11,000 telephones in 30 seconds. [Joe] Golden suggested that this technology enables focused targeting to citizens directly impacted by the hazard and allows an alert to be communicated at hours when individuals may have turned off traditional mass media. The Reverse 911® technique will be tested in two cities, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Houston, Texas, to communicate flash flood and tornado warnings.”

February 7, 2006
Publication #FHWA–HOP-08-015