It's an Emergency! Now What?

How will your local government inform citizens if there's an emergency? I ask because a week or two ago, sometime during the swine flu ...
by | May 14, 2009 AT 3:00 AM

How will your local government inform citizens if there's an emergency? I ask because a week or two ago, sometime during the swine flu scare (remember that?), I was awakened at 5:30 a.m. by the sound of a persistent siren. Like the air raid siren I remembered from childhood. But who uses those anymore and for what? I hadn't heard one in a very long time.

My first thought was to go back to sleep. But I couldn't. I walked out onto my balcony and saw neighbors also out on their balconies. I turned on the television. No clues there. I debated calling the police. Not sure why I didn't.

I thought for a split second the siren was warning us to evacuate because of swine flu. Huh? Aren't we supposed to stay inside for swine flu? (Hey, it was 5:30 in the morning and I was dopey with sleep.)

I called the front desk of my condo building and was told the building engineer thought the sound was coming from Howard University next door. (Wrong.) I read the next day on a local news site that the sound was from a tricked-out house alarm. (Wrong.)

Eventually, I dug out some earplugs and went back to bed. The alarm continued until 7:15 a.m.

It turns out that the noise was coming from an old, malfunctioning siren on the nearby campus of the University of the District of Columbia. And could be heard far and wide. At least a mile. So was it an old air raid siren? Who knows? (Thank goodness it WASN'T someone's house. They would have been run out of town by an angry mob.)

I was reminded of the incident today because I read that the Department of Homeland Security is dismantling a "next-generation biological attack warning system in New York City subways because of technical problems." Not that it's the same thing.

Questions remain. For me, that is. What should I have done? Who should I have called? How will my government inform everyone when there is a real alert? And inform them when they don't have to worry? People on my neighborhood listserv had similar questions. Many apparently had called police, who were apparently not very informative. They wanted to start their own method for getting the word out to each other.

I actually get text alerts from the D.C. government. Here's the funny thing. I didn't think to turn on my computer or my BlackBerry. (Do I need to repeat that it was 5:30 a.m.?) It wasn't at a time when all the electronics were humming and an alert would have flashed in my face. (And anyway, when I did finally turn my BlackBerry on, there was no alert waiting for me.)

My government also has put out a fair number of pamphlets on what to do during major emergencies. That was after 9/11 when we were all buying gas masks and storing food and water (well, not all of us). But the basic question remains.

How am I supposed to know, in the moment, what's happening where, and whether I should stay or leave?

I guess if it had been a real emergency, the information would have started flowing everywhere -- on television and online and somehow I would have gotten word.

But I have to admit, the not knowing was unnerving. Thankfully, this time, it was just a siren malfunction.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |