Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Alerting Lessons from Irene Benefit N.J. Residents During Sandy

Jefferson Township, N.J., deploys Instant Alert after Irene just in time for superstorm Sandy.

After Hurricane Irene hit Jefferson Township, N.J., in August 2011, emergency managers there realized they had done some things right and some things wrong. They congratulated themselves for making shelters available and getting roads open — things like that. Unfortunately, they had no way of communicating that information to the public.

What the township’s emergency managers did in response helped greatly during superstorm Sandy. To fix the communication problem, the township deployed Honeywell’s Instant Alert mass notification system. It was put to good use during Sandy when emergency managers sent two messages per day to the nearly 3,000 (of 6,000 township residents) who had signed up.

Office of Emergency Management Deputy Coordinator Ed Mangold sent 34 different messages during that two-week period. Usually there was a morning message about safety — check on your neighbors, the elderly and people with special needs. The evening message was more information, such as where to locate a “comfort station,” where to get water and where to go for more information.

Two comfort stations were set up for residents to gather, grab some soup, power up and receive information. Mangold said most of the 2,200 people visiting the comfort stations said they learned of them through the alerts. Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) members were camped at the comfort stations signing up residents for future alerts. They added nearly 1,000 at the stations.

Mangold said police headquarters lost power and there was no Internet or phone capability for a while. “But I was able to access Instant Alert and send our alerts via my laptop from a remote location during that time,” he said. “We had great success with it.”

“We did what we thought was an awesome job of setting up shelters and getting roads open during Irene,” he said. “But we had no formal way of communicating to the public so they didn’t know. We were relying on an old data system that only picked up landlines and not cellphones or anything else. It just didn’t work after the storm.”

Mangold said his office made a commitment to use the Instant Alert system only for disasters and to use email for any other notifications so people know when they get a text message or call that it’s a true emergency.

The township pays Honeywell a yearly fee of $11,000 for the system.

Mangold said there were lessons learned from Sandy as well. “We were kind of lackadaisical about signing people up. We’re going to go back on the road again and take the message to the people with our CERT about getting signed up.”
 
He said residents learned also. Hurricane Irene flooded basements and so forth, but Sandy caused substantial damage and injuries. “People learned on this one. I hate to say it but you almost need something like this for the public to take ownership.”
 

Jim McKay  |  Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.

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