Monday, July 28, 2008

Alert to Alert DC

When Alert DC came online I had just moved back to DC, and September 11th was still on my mind. Alert DC is described by the DC government thusly: "rapid text notification and update information in a major crisis or emergency." I decided as soon as I new of the service to have all city-wide alerts about all incidents sent to my mobile phone. Mistake. If I had not changed my subscriber options, I would have had to switch to a billing plan that included unlimited incoming text messages.

I was thinking that if I received a message, I should actually be on alert. Now I believe that the DC government just doesn't want WTOP, Weatherbug, and office water cooler gatherings to form a traffic and weather reporting cartel. When one registers for alerts, one can select from the following list of "major crises and emergencies" about which to be alerted:

  • Weather
  • Traffic incidents including Metro delays
  • Utility outages
  • Government and school closings
  • Amber Alerts
  • Breaking news and information
I count four out of six factors above that are neither crises or emergencies; five of six factors that have nothing to do with DC Homeland Security, the agency that oversees the alerts; and one factor, "news and information," that could include any tidbit DC would like to share.

All I want to know is whether the text message or email I receive means "duck and cover." I need something to serve as the modern equivalent of an air raid siren. I'd like to see new choices for levels of emergency about which one would like to be notified. Perhaps the news and information selection could be made even more granular. I suggest: "shelter in place," "get out of Dodge," "and Homeland Security & Emergency Management personnel are soiling themselves" as indicators of the level of emergency. Are those too long for a subject line?

My concerns about terrorism have waned quite a bit; if anything, the securitocracy idiocy has me wondering if there's any threat at all anymore. I had to pass through a metal detector to get into the National Aquarium on a weekend because it is in the Department of Commerce building. I've been delayed while entering the Regan Building parking garage because my caffeine consumption caused my hand to shake while removing ID to show police officers. (I was seeing a client, wearing a suit, driving a Toytal Corolla with college stickers on it, and accompanied by a colleague who was not questioned.) But the best recent tale from the Twilight Zone of Homeland Security is this: People in our federal government were really wondering this past week if a family of ducks were killed by a terrorist act. (It was avian botulism that took them, if you're curious.)

In the meantime, here are some events I've witnessed in the past five years that I might have liked to have known more about:

In the late summer of 2003, while suffering a bout of very late night insomnia, I heard helicopters flying overhead. They seemed to be the really loud window-jangling military type, but I didn't think anything of it until they kept passing over my home over and over again for an extended period of time. In the following week, I discovered that the copter pilots were searching for an unidentified aircraft that had flown too close to the White House. The airborne object later turned out to be nothing more than a radar anomaly. Still would have been nice to know about an incident that the government apparently considered to be an imminent threat.

Periodically, I'll see armed security teams with German Shepherds trolling Metro stations. There's no way to know if they are responding to a credible threat or if this is just a new part of daily Metro safety.

Mr 14th & You and I would often travel between his Gaithersburg apartment and my Logan abode during our courtship. On a late-night weekday drive to DC from G'burg (shh, don't tell my parents) we were passed by a few police cars hauling south on 270 with lights and sirens blaring. Minutes later, city police, county police, sheriffs, highway patrol, and every other type of copper from jurisdictions as far away as Germantown started roaring south down the interstate. At least three dozen police vehicles passed us, jumped onto 495 S, and exited for Canal Road. Mr 14th & You and I got the distinct impression that we were driving toward something that we might not want to be driving toward, so we headed northwest to take Mass. Ave. inbound at a slow pace while listening to the radio. WTOP briefly reported police activity near Key Bridge and then didn't mention a single other thing. I would conjecture that we witnessed some sort of Homeland Security drill. I still wish that there was some way of knowing at the time whether or not we were experiencing a true emergency.

So if ever there's an incident that I should be alerted to because I need to be motivated to action to protect myself, I really hope that one of my friends or family will text, call, or email with reliable and prompt information. Meanwhile I will commit myself to being a cavalier unalert citizen by doing crazy things like not signing up for DC Alerts, ignoring carryout containers left on Metro cars (a.k.a. unattended packages), and not calling in backpacks abandoned in Shaw.


Anonymous said...

Oh, hell yeah. The city plays on text messages with bit-by-bit updates about non-sense. The city needs clearer definitions of mass communication and use the discretion appropriately.

Clearbluewater3 said...

i ended up unsubscribing this week after getting months of half txt messages that ate into my monthly limit and never told me anything noteable. I live and work in capitol hill and they kept sending me stuff happening in every part of the city but near my apt/office.

Anonymous said...

I am only in DC during the school year at GW (who insisted we sign up for Alert DC), and despite my best efforts to change my preferences for the summer, I still get alerts about weather, power outages, and traffic incidents. Half the time I only get half of a two-part message anyway!

gpliving said...

They also seem to have no clue as to the 140/160 character limits. I just love it when I get a text message immediately followed by a 2nd one with a single word + a period.

Anonymous said...

You have to go to the Alert DC website to unsubscribe or change your options.