The mass destruction of Hurricane Sandy presented life altering challenges not only for residents throughout the state, but also for first responders who needed to keep the populace informed.
The storm forced law enforcement agencies to re-evaluate the way they disseminate information to the public when faced with widespread power outages during emergency situations. On Tuesday morning, 65 representatives from law enforcement agencies throughout seven different counties in New Jersey gathered at the Monmouth Junction Firehouse in South Brunswick to discuss communication in times of crisis.
"After Sandy, sharing information with the public has become more of an obligation," said South Brunswick Police spokesman Sgt. Jim Ryan. "Those agencies that were perceived as having performed well in response to the storm were those that did a good job relaying information to the public. Those that were perceived as having performed poorly didn't relay as much information."
Representatives from agencies in Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic, Somerset, Union, Essex and Middlesex counties shared some of their best practices for disseminating information during the storm throughout the discussion. The conference highlighted the use of Nixle alerts and social media, as Sandy presented unique challenges for law enforcement agencies suffering from their own power outages and a disruption in the lines of communication.
"Flooding was our biggest problem. We had 40 homes that were damaged and 235 people sheltered in our senior center," said Sgt. Dave Lasko of the Sayreville Police Department. "We had no power, no Internet, and no phone communication. To get information out, we had one laptop with one air card."
Sgt. Lasko pointed to the use of social media as a means to inform the public as to the status of power outages, road closures and other storm related issues.
"Our biggest thing was the department Facebook page," Sgt. Lasko said. "We posted information and within minutes we had 80 people 'like' it. It was very helpful since people can get this information on their smart phones."
Emphasis was placed on the importance of Nixle, a free service for public safety organizations that allows law enforcement agencies to send email or text alerts to residents who sign up. Over 6,300 agencies across the country utilize the service, but only a handful of attendees at the conference said they use Nixle.
The importance of having alternative methods to alert the public came into focus during Sandy, as residents lost the ability to access township, municipal and police web sites.
"The majority of web sites will fail during times of disaster," Sgt. Ryan said. "At a Google training session, they told us that 80 percent of sites will crash if you have a major incident. They become overloaded from people locally and from spectators trying to find out information."
South Brunswick Police sent out 80 Nixle alerts during the storm and subsequent recovery. The number of residents signed up for the free service grew by the thousands, with over 9,300 people currently signed up in the township. A Nixle representative said the service adds about 1,000 to 2,000 new subscibers on an average day. During Sandy, the service added over 15,000 new subscribers.
East Brunswick Police reported a growth from 1,000 Nixle subscribers to over 7,000 following Sandy.
"This storm opened everyone's eyes that no matter what kind of preparation you have in place, you also need to communicate with the public," said East Brunswick Police Sgt. Kevin Zebro. "If people don't know the latest information then that taxes our services. If we have an emergency situation and we can inform the public and keep them from going down to that area, then that frees more of our resources."
Sgt. Ryan also highlighted the collaboration between various agencies and the public. He pointed to private citizens in Franklin Township who created interactive Google maps of open gas stations in the area, which were referenced by the federal government. He also noted a Hoboken resident staying with relatives in Pennsylvania who created a Google map of power outages in Hoboken that was also used by first responders.
"What's happening is that we're seeing people transcending the line and asking how can we get the public involved in getting information out," Sgt. Ryan said. "Agencies have to ask themselves 'why are we holding on to information when we need to get it out to the public?' Sharing information more effectively will be a big part of the future after Sandy."
Ultimately, Sgt. Ryan said it's crucial for first responders to collaborate on best practices through the use of Nixle, social media and public interaction to determine the best course of action when faced with future calamitous situations.
"Each storm, each incident we learn from," Sgt. Ryan said. "But we can't learn anything if we all don't share information."