Billboards grab motorists’ attention with advertisements for attorneys, restaurants — even strip clubs. Four Texas counties are taking the same approach to communicate emergency alerts in real time.

Harris, Galveston, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties in southeast Texas announced this week they will participate in the Gulf Coast Emergency Communications Network — a system that, in part, will help the Texas counties display alerts on digital billboards.  Eleven billboards throughout the four counties are currently incorporated into the network with four more slated for deployment within the next month.

Beginning on Monday, May 14, each of the billboards displayed a test message to prepare residents for future emergency alerts. The digital billboards are another tool for reaching out and communicating with the public, said Francisco Sanchez, the public information officer of Harris County’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Office.

The emergency management offices of each of the four counties partnered with Clear Channel Outdoor — an advertising arm of the media company — to provide regionwide and local messaging on the billboards, specific to what area or areas the emergency affects.  Clear Channel already provides hurricane-related emergency notification alerts to Florida jurisdictions. Hurricane season lasts from May 15 (in the Eastern Pacific)/June 1 (in the Atlantic) until November 30.

According to Lee Vela, a Clear Channel spokesman, the counties’ emergency management offices will determine what the messages should say, transmit them to Clear Channel, and then the company would send the message to the billboard via satellite transmission. For emergencies only affecting one of the four counties, (e.g., flooding or tornadoes), the county would transmit messages to Clear Channel that would only be displayed on billboards in that specific area.

The billboards display regular advertisements when they aren’t displaying emergency notifications, Vela said.

The billboard signage utilizes light-emitting diode (LED) technology to enhance the visibility of images and text. Clear Channel has looked into providing generators so the billboards will still function when power is cut off.

Harris County found a need for the billboards because of the area’s large number of commuters, Sanchez said. The greater Harris County area is sprawling — 17,000 square miles, with 4.1 million people, and includes Houston. The emergency management office wanted to more efficiently communicate with residents on roadways and freeways.

Not only does the county plan to use the billboard for hurricane alerts, but expects to use the messaging system to send alerts on flash floods, HAZMAT incidences and other types of threats.

Official alerts have not been sent out yet, but currently the emergency management offices are working to develop templates — “preset messages” so that alerts can be put on the billboards more quickly and automatically, Francisco said.

Specialized artwork also has been designed to show up on the billboards during emergencies so that residents can more easily associate the image with an emergency notification, Vela said.

Since the notifications are to be displayed on billboards and not through other mediums such as computers or phones, Vela said it’s important that the messages be short and not overly distracting. He said Clear Channel has recommended that the emergency management offices limit the messages to seven words or less.

Billboard signs must follow federal regulations intended to avoid driver distractions.

“You have about five to seven seconds to read a board as you’re going by it,” Vela said. “We want it to be helpful and informative, but you can’t put a book up there and expect people to read it.”

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.