Public Safety & Homeland Security

Emergency Alert System in Morris County, N.J., to Link 39 Cities via Social Media

Facebook and Twitter bolster new local shared emergency information network that will enable municipalities to deliver instant alerts to citizens.

by Russell Nichols / September 8, 2010
Tom McKeith

In March, a powerful storm pummeled New Jersey, forcing police, utility and emergency crews to scramble as the severe weather sapped power, delayed trains and triggered floods. But publicly available information about the storm’s effects was scarce, and citizens searching for updates were left high and dry.

To avert such communication failures in the future, Morris County, N.J., has activated a shared emergency information network, using social media tools — Facebook and Twitter — to deliver crucial updates around the clock.

Dubbed MCUrgent, the emergency alert system enables the county Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to issue notifications and warnings to residents. Ultimately the shared network will provide a platform for each of the county’s 39 towns to quickly share and disseminate emergency information when disaster strikes.

“It's a shared service,” said Carol Spencer, the county’s IT department webmaster. “Our goal right now is multijurisdictional emergency management.”

As governments on all levels seek to connect with citizens more quickly, social media has become a go-to source in the Information Age. It makes sense. Despite concerns that Web 2.0 can blur personal and professional boundaries, tools such as Facebook and Twitter help governments shoot out important information in a few keystrokes. Users can access that data through their computers or mobile devices immediately.

These digital news blasts appeal to emergency managers, who want to spread the word about road closings, power outages, flash floods, locations of emergency shelters, etc. Some local agencies, such as the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, have been taking advantage of tools like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn for the past few years. Others are exploring options. In any case, this idea of emergency management 2.0 isn’t going anywhere.

With that understanding, Morris County officials want to take the concept to a new level by linking with municipalities in one shared network. Margaret Nordstrom, a Morris County freeholder, which is similar to a county supervisor, really pushed the social media strategy, Spencer said, “where we’re capturing the information at its source and aggregating it on our websites.”

In the next phase, the county plans to choose its platform and connect with interested municipalities. The OEM already has nearly 100 fans of its new Facebook page and 29 Twitter followers. On Twitter, citizens can contribute by posting messages using hashtags set up by the county, which will identify each municipality. They can also receive messages via text by texting follow MCUrgent to 40404.

The alerts will be restricted to emergency information only. But this new system is not the end-all, be-all solution, Spencer said. In fact, MCUrgent simply represents an additional notification tool that will spread information and warnings, and help provide 24/7 coverage.

The county had a “soft launch” of MCUrgent last week when Hurricane Earl had its sights set on New Jersey. The state ultimately was spared as the hurricane weakened, but the new Twitter feed was active with links to keep track of the storm’s progress and need-to-know tips about power outages — a glimpse of things to come.

“We didn’t know which way the hurricane was going to go,” Spencer said, “but we were ready.”