On Friday evening at 8:19 PM, I received the following notification (via both text and e-mail) from New York City’s NotifyNYC alert system:
“Alert issued 7/23/10 at 8:20 PM. The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado Warning until 9:00 PM for Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx. Immediately go indoors and/or to the lowest floor of your building for shelter. Stay away from windows.”
Though thunderstorms had been predicted, a tornado warning — along with the urgent and specific instructions — was a bit of a surprise. I am sure I was not the only New York apartment dweller receiving a NotifyNYC alert that was a little perplexed what to do. Should we all actually be going to the lobby of our buildings? Should we be warning our neighbors (who aren’t signed up for the City’s alerts) to do so as well?
I happened to be watching television — “Friday Night Lights,” appropriately it turned out, as thunder was flashing through the Gotham sky. The local affiliate, WNBC-TV, cut into the show to announce the tornado warning. The meteorologist did not recommend any of the preventive actions mentioned in the NotifyNYC alert, though a scroll on the screen was suggesting that the safest place to be in a tornado was a basement, closet or hallway.
It was an example of how e-mail/text alerts can effectively relay immediate information directly to citizens no matter where they are. (And that people should be signing up for these free notifications.) But only a relatively small percentage of New Yorkers are enrolled (approximately 45,000 subscribers) so Friday night there was an information gap between those who receive the alerts and those who get their emergency information from the news media.
‘Friday night lights’ over Manhattan but no tornado (photo by Richard Caplan/WNBC)
Friday evening when the National Weather Service issued the tornado alert, the City’s Office of Emergency Management (NYC-OEM) faced an interesting (and new) communications policy question: should it send out the information (and the safety instructions) in a limited alert format to subscribers, which were going to come as an out of the blue surprise to us? (Tornado response may be second nature in the Midwest but not in Manhattan.). It would also mean that subscribers were going to know more than about it than the rest of the public.
I think they made the right decision to distribute the alert. However, the City also needs to make sure that whatever emergency information it is sending out through the e-mail/text NotifyNYC system that the same message is being communicated through the news media, which is still the main information medium for most of the public. Friday night, the messaging was not totally aligned.
It turned out that a tornado did not end up touching down in the Big Apple Friday night. But I thought this was an interesting case study of how government is disseminatjng emergency news to the public with its new tools. In fact, I would recommend the City’s OEM highlight this example publicly as a reason why more people should sign up for these alerts so they have the most updated information in a potential crisis situation.