New Yorkers have more reason than most Americans to be preoccupied with emergency
preparedness. Given the fact that this month alone we’ve endured a system-wide
transit shutdown, a building-shredding tornado, and a tragic and terrifying fire
at Ground Zero, city residents have a right to ask tough questions about our
government’s ability to keep us informed in times of crisis.
Failures of infrastructure, high-impact accidents, natural disasters and terrorist
attacks all carry risks of extreme danger that can only be mitigated by the receipt
of timely, accurate information. That is why, in the aftermath of both the storm
that shut down the subways and the fire at the Deutsche Bank building, New Yorkers’ most
persistent questions concern the City’s failure to provide adequate and
timely information during these crises. After all, public safety, which requires
a high level of communication, is a core function of government.
While part of the immediate challenge is technological, the main impediments,
it turns out, have to do, not with wires or electromagnetic fields, but with
judgment, responsibility and fear of potential consequences. New York City, which
has made great technological strides under Mayor Bloomberg, must move forward
with a reverse 911 system that can deliver recorded messages to affected New
Yorkers during an emergency. We should also exploit all the gadgets already in
people’s hands to get them emergency information. But we must do so with
a full understanding that technological innovations alone will not solve the
emergency communications dilemma.
From California to the nation’s capital to here at home, and at every level
of government, emergency response officials have been stymied in their efforts
to provide timely information to citizens through their cell phones, PDAs and
computers â€“ not primarily due to gaps in technology, but due to a lack
of human resources and the absence of clear lines of authority. In New York City,
the Office of Emergency Management, which has proved its mettle again and again
in times of crisis, has nevertheless been unable to fulfill its goal of updating
residents “on active emergencies,” or to provide its promised “guidance
on protective actions you may need to take to stay safe,” â€“ both
promises spelled out on office’s website. The reasons for this are complex
For starters, there’s the ever-present question of liability. This results
in a tendency for officials to keep emergency information within tightly controlled
channels and pass it on to the public piecemeal, and too often only after many
hours of confusion.
Problems of authority and chain of command add to the information vacuum. In
high stakes emergency situations, as events rapidly unfold, many people at numerous
agencies and at different levels of government must gather information and analyze
a situation that is in flux. During a time of high pressure and shifting insight,
deciding what information can and must be conveyed to the public requires both
keen judgment and a kind of “the-buck-stops-here” authority. Currently
no single identifiable person or agency has that responsibility. As long as it’s
unclear where the authority rests, those hard judgments are unlikely to be made
in a timely manner.
iven all the technology available to us today, the challenge is not as much
in making sure that information gets out as in providing solid, reliable information
in the first place. When information is shared freely, it spreads quickly. When
just a few people in a building, school or other community receive word of what
they can do to remain safe during an emergency, it has a viral effect. That is
why during moments of danger it is so important to fill a vacuum of information
with as much accurate and reliable information as can be made available to the
What is needed is a strongly managed communications network able to respond to
emergencies with reliable, authoritative information delivered as quickly as
possible. Throughout the network, employees should be encouraged to make the
tough decisions about what information should be conveyed to the public. The
people who comprise the network should be designated in advance and everyone
should know who they are.
Finally, the most fundamental part of improving emergency communications is making
it a priority, which requires, above all, respecting its importance. If knowledge
is power, it is also our primary bulwark against danger. Without knowledge of
the danger, we cannot protect ourselves and our loved ones.
For the City of New York, August 2007 is a wake up call. There are intelligent
steps we can and must take that will banish to the history books scenes of New
Yorkers wandering the streets in confusion, shaking our heads. And the good news
is, creating an excellent emergency communication system does not depend on our
waiting for some new technological innovation â€“ all we need is the political
will and good sense to use our highly developed problem solving skills.
Scott M. Stringer is the Manhattan Borough President
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