New Emergency Alert System Using Billboards To Inform Citizens

Storm warnings and other emergencies are about to go high tech. A new system using electronic advertising billboards positioned in four counties was unveiled at Houston TranStar.

You've seen the text messages on the billboards operated by TxDOT, that alert motorists to traffic information, a missing person or an Amber Alert.

An updated version was unveiled, called the Gulf Coast Emergency Communications Network. Digital billboards, strategically placed in four counties, will soon tell people what to do in an emergency.

Mark Sloan is Harris County Emergency Management Coordinator:

"If the message needs to go out to the public, based on the type of event we're facing, hurricane in the gulf, and we need to prepare this message to the public, I would then authorize that through the system, based on the code that we have, so that it would be posted to the boards within our jurisdiction, and we would work regionally to the post the messages, along with Galveston, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties, as they get online as well."

Motorists may or may not be listening to the news on the radio, and Sloan says the new visual billboards are another way for them to see important messages. They operate via satellite, providing emergency coordinators with vital information they pass on to residents.

Jeff Braum, emergency management coordinator in Fort Bend County, says this system would have come in handy last week.

"We had a large Amber Alert situation that happened last week, and obviously, more opportunities to have that information up on boards across the region would have been ideal. Also, as many of you know, we had 11-inches of rain in parts of Fort Bend county over the weekend, and major roads were blocked like U.S. 90 A, and the Grand Parkway, State Highway 99. So, those are other areas where we can use the signs to allow people to know what is going on in Fort Bend County."

The billboards look like a big screen, with text that is coordinated at TranStar. One alerted motorists with a message that stated: "This is only a test."

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says the new system enhances their ability to communicate with an estimated 261,000 people who see these signs each day.

"It's just one more tool for people to be able to look up and see on a billboard, particularly if you get enough of them. If we got six scattered around the county, pumping out a message, then you get thousands of people that see it, and that's a great tool."

When they're not used for emergency announcements, the billboards will display ads.

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Pat Hernandez

Reporter

Pat Hernandez is a general assignments reporter who joined the KUHF news staff in February of 2008...