We Interrupt This Broadcast – 4 Lessons from Tampa Water Boil Notice

This Friday and Saturday, there was a 48 hour boil notice for water in my area (City of Tampa). Pretty simple – you were not allowed to drink tap water without boiling it first otherwise there might be health issues. It affected 600,000 individuals in the area plus the trickle-down affects of restaurants, coffee shops, laundromats.

And as a father of newborn, it’s one of those items that makes you glad you heard about it as affects everything from water the breast-feeding mother is drinking, the water we are sterilizing his bottles, the water we are washing his clothes in.

Which got me thinking – what if we didn’t hear about the notice? And how do we make sure we touch and notify all citizens in times of emergencies. Here’s my 4 lessons:

1) We Interrupt This Broadcast – Everyone knows the common refrain “we interrupt this broadcast” which usually occurs if there is a major emergency (or plan). This began with the concept that interrupting TV was the best way to reach the masses – now the answer is super simple. “We Interrupt this Text Message” – in times of emergencies I think it’d be great to send mass text message to all cell phones GPS located in an area. Technology is already there (& looks like Weather Service is already planning to do it).

2) Audience Matters – On the local news, the TV announcer mentioned City of Tampa had 12,000 signed up for emergency alerts out of 600,000 individuals. That’s about 2%. Not enough – that’s why it is so important to increase sign-ups during non-emergency times so you can reach more than 2% of folks in times of emergencies.

3) Relationships / PR Still Matter – Personally I heard about the water issue via AOL’s Patch local service. My wife heard about it via a community listserve and the information was also relayed by the university she teaches at to all her students. And it was front-page news from the major daily papers to free weekly. In times of emergencies, these channels still matter and you need to have these relationships (press, big institutions, employers, services and shelters, etc).

4) Social Media matters – I’d give City of Tampa a B- job on social media. My wife kept on wanting to know if ban had been lift or there had been any “new” news. I would periodically check Twitter but it seemed the City was only updating once ever few hours. 22 Tweets over 3 days – it’s not a terrible number but in time of emergency I would have hoped for a lot more (even if it is repeating the same information).

Have you been an emergency lately? How did your city react?

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