When the big bell rings it is “all hands on deck” to load up and get underway. We have pre-loaded foam concentrate, hose, personal protective equipment, generators and a myriad of other items which may or will be required to mitigate the incident. Lists have been prepared and containers assembled; nothing is forgotten. Nothing, that is, except one of the most important, namely communication with John Q. Public.

The public has a need and a right to know what is going on within their community. The legitimate need arises from the necessity of a response from members of the local body politic. Evacuation may be required for which the residents will need to gather up essentials (insurance papers, wills, high value items both real and emotional, such as jewelry, etc.)

What are the viable evacuation routes? How and where will we get transport in cases where the subject does not own an automobile? Where shall we go? Aunt Sally’s house? The Down-Towner Hotel? How much will we be expected to pay for food or lodging?

Destinations and evacuation routes need to be pre-planned in advance. Medications and perhaps infant formula need to be packed along with necessary equipment (Oxygen concentrators, dialysis apparatus, IV pumps, etc.).These are legitimate questions and they deserve viable answers that need to be determined in advance.

Like it or not, when a major incident occurs the whole community is involved. If there are injuries or the possibility of such, the hospital and trauma center need all the advance notice they can get to start up their response protocols. Unfortunately, if there is a possibility of fatalities the local mortuaries may need to be informed too.

Depending on the location, the utilities may need to be informed along with transportation and navigation companies. The airports, both commercial and military, will possibly need to be advised to re-route flights so as to avoid toxic atmospheric contaminates. All these will have a procedure for receiving notifications regarding industrial accidents; all, that is except the general public and public institutions such as schools and, if it happens Sunday morning, churches.

These are locations where large numbers of civilians congregate but which have little or no protocol to deal with an emergency alert or warning.

Once the decision is made to publish such an alarm or warning how is this to be done? Most governmental agencies and mutual aid organizations have a provision in place to receive and process notifications of industrial incidents; all we have to do is plug the data into the system. Not so with our friend John Q. Public. This party can be very difficult to reach and yet have the most pressing need to know.

In the areas of our country known as “tornado alley” many communities have siren systems installed. When these go off, especially during the season when tornadoes are most likely, the citizens know what it means and they react accordingly. This may not the case in communities where tornadoes are not expected or in rural areas beyond audible range of the alert systems.

I can recall not too long ago when we had party lines and “number please” telephone service. When any sort of emergency — fire, weather, auto accident — occurred the operator would give one irresistibly long ring. Everybody knew to clear the line and listen for the nature and location of the problem. We also had a little one-horse radio station.

All that was necessary was for the sheriff or police officer to call the station and programming was interrupted to carry the “public service” announcement. These announcements not only reported that an incident had occurred, they advised the citizenry as to what mitigating actions should be taken. “There has been a collision on FM 26 near Crossroads School. Motorists are advised to detour by way of Pipeline Road and FM 31 to pick up their children at the school.” These “old school:” methods were effective. They weren’t “high tech” but they worked.

Contrast this to what happens in our modern computerized society. Years ago I was involved in a community program that was supposed to deal with the back-up of vehicles caused by a crash, especially during rush hour. I thought of that small town telephone alert system back in the old days. I contacted our local telephone company to see if a similar system was feasible; it wasn’t.

Upon inquiry, I found that to get an announcement on the telephone we would need a great deal of expensive equipment and approval from everybody but God. Then there would be the little matter of an “activation fee.” Since the majority of commuting drivers play their car radios while driving, I contacted one of the local radio stations about instituting a “PSA” (Public Service Announcement) protocol to advise the driving public of treacherous road conditions and to suggest an alternate route.

Once again I found that we have been outsmarted by our own technology. In the old days, the staff of our little radio station simply turned to the control panel, pushed the switch to turn on the microphone, related the pertinent information, then returned to whatever program was in progress. Or, if the incident was a fire, he grabbed his hat and took off to cover it. If the program went off the air we all understood what was happening and that we would get the full details when he returned.

I’m told that today’s local radio station is nothing more than an old-fashioned record player on steroids hooked to a transmitter. The operator loads it up in the morning and it plays all day unattended. It would, I was told, require a physical trip from downtown to the transmitter to actually interrupt the program, to say nothing about all the approvals and permits that would be needed. “Ain’t tecknology wunnerful”? If you recall most local radio stations continued their regular programming as the events of 9/ll unfolded.

Television in automobiles is limited to DVD players to keep the kids quiet. Traffic law continues to frown on it in the front seat. But television stations and cable news networks have long since eclipsed local radio in delivering “breaking news.” Mobility now isolates more than it liberates.

As a result, the driving public, the people who may need the news the worst, is the least likely to get it in a timely fashion.

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