Lessons on emergency preparedness from the presidential inauguration
- By Thomas Crane
- Feb 21, 2017
Hundreds of thousands of visitors came to Washington, D.C., on the weekend of Jan. 20 for the inauguration of President Donald Trump and the Women’s March. With the political rancor surrounding the events, it was essential for government agencies to have measures in place to protect area residents and visitors from all types of threats.
Local, state and federal agencies across the country are focused on strengthening capabilities to prepare for “complex coordinated terrorist attacks,” a phrase that describes incidents such as the July 2016 terrorist attack in Nice, France, that killed 86 people and the November 2015 attack in Paris that had 137 fatalities.
For officials managing major events like the inauguration and the Women’s March, incidents ranging from civil disturbances to armed attacks are a significant concern.
To prepare accordingly, District government officials worked with various agencies, such as the U.S. Park Police, the Secret Service and the National Guard as well as the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA) and D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services – plus neighboring police, fire and emergency management agencies and volunteers.
Planning, coordination and training among all agencies helped ensure officials could be aware of, communicate, respond to and manage various types of incidents throughout the weekend. Rapid response and communication capabilities prevented small incidents from snowballing and causing cascading impacts.
For example, on the day of the inauguration, a few groups of protesters became violent, but law enforcement agencies were able to quickly respond to and manage the incidents. Police command staff and officers communicated situation updates via text messaging and email, while several jurisdictions throughout the region used the same platform to share critical information via the Regional Incident Communication and Coordination System, as well as send alerts to the public via Alert DC service. Visitors could easily opt-in to these public alerts by texting the keyword “INAUG” to 888-777, thereby initiating alerts from HSEMA and U.S. Park Police regarding weather, traffic and public safety.
To effectively prepare for and manage large-scale events, agencies can apply the following strategies that were successful during inauguration weekend:
Implement a unified critical communications platform
A key factor ensuring public safety during inauguration weekend was the unified critical communications platform that all agencies used to facilitate secure, fast and effective sharing of information. Communication tools, policies and procedures helped increase agencies’ ability to assess situations and communicate with the right people, at the right time, with the right method.
Test, train and exercise
A week before the inauguration, HSEMA conducted a dress rehearsal that included a test of the wireless emergency alerts capability. This test ensured the city was prepared to notify residents and visitors in the event of a major emergency, whether or not they were subscribed to receive Alert DC notifications.
Operational testing ensured staff members were proficient in using communication systems and that they adhered to agency policies and procedures. Training exercises performed in advance of the event assured message content, contact lists and policies relating to public and internal communication were all clear and well defined.
These elements ensured agencies were well prepared for any type of major incident. If one were to occur, the District government and its partner agencies had a reliable framework for sharing critical information and coordinating response.
Select an opt-in keyword for public alerts
Residents and visitors received the most up-to-date information regarding the inauguration by texting the keyword “INAUG” to 888-777. Subscribing by text-a-keyword is fast and easy. Many visitors want all alerts for a specific event and want to stop receiving alerts after it is over. They are not interested in spending time to visit a website, create a username and password, enter their contact information and choose from numerous subscription options.
Text messages are a reliable and immediate method of communication. Unlike email or social media, text messages are more likely to be viewed immediately upon receipt. In emergencies, timeliness matters.
Promote the alert program to visitors
Emergency notifications are useful only if the information reaches the intended people. Residents may already be aware of, and signed up for, local public alerts, but visitors are at a disadvantage. HSEMA and U.S. Park Police increased the number of alert subscribers by promoting the text-a-keyword message in the following ways:
- Large signage with “Text INAUG to 888-777” was positioned in the area surrounding the event, and additional signage was posted on telephone poles to encourage people to sign up for inauguration updates. Printable maps with the keyword prominently displayed were handed out to event attendees. These simple tactics created high visibility for the keyword during the events.
- Information about signing up for alerts was shared via social media. Using their own Facebook and Twitter accounts, the U.S. Park Police, HSEMA and D.C. Metropolitan Police Department further encouraged residents and visitors to opt-in for critical safety, weather, traffic, event and emergency information.
The importance of effective communication cannot be understated in ensuring public safety for large events. Fast, secure and reliable communication is critical for local emergency managers and law enforcement agencies responsible for managing major events, so that they are prepared for anything.
Thomas Crane is senior solutions consultant at Everbridge.