The flood-prone Eastwick neighborhood in Philadelphia will get custom emergency alerts, under a contract the city plans to award soon.
The city’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) closed a Request for Proposals last month for a contractor to find out from Eastwick residents how the city can reach more people in the neighborhood with timelier emergency information.
“We realized we could do a better job at our messaging there and make it a little more tailored to the community — make it relevant to people,” said Michael Giardina, deputy director of operations at OEM.
The city’s emergency alerts failed during Tropical Storm Isaias, the last storm to cause devastating flooding in Eastwick in 2020.
“It was just really pandemonium,” said Carolyn Moseley, consulting executive director of Eastwick United. “People didn’t know what to do. They didn’t even know that the creek had overflowed until the water came in their homes.”
According to OEM, the agency sent a message to contacts who had opted in to the city’s ReadyPhiladelphia system and landlines in Eastwick, after flooding there started. For weather alerts, OEM usually sends out messages from the National Weather Service city-wide — for example, a tornado watch or warning, which may include safety instructions.
“That information is not tailored specifically to a community,” Giardina said. “What you receive as a Center City resident is the same as the Manayunk resident is the same as somebody who lives in the Northeast, is the same as somebody in Eastwick.”
The city currently has a three-tiered system of emergency alerts.
For the lowest-level threats, like fires or winter weather, the city uses its opt-in ReadyPhiladelphia system — which sends text messages, emails, voicemails, or alerts through a mobile app. Residents can even choose to receive a specific subset of alerts based on keywords or where they live. But because residents need to sign up, the system only reaches a small portion of city residents.
For situations such as a potential evacuation or shelter-in-place command, the city sends alerts to a list of cell phones and landlines within the city. Residents must opt-out of this system, so it reaches a larger audience than ReadyPhiladelphia.
For the most urgent messages, like immediate evacuation or shelter-in-place orders, the city can send push notifications to cell phones within specified geographic areas — akin to Amber Alerts— as well as messages over radio and TV. OEM hesitates to use this system in all but the biggest emergencies, for fear of causing “warning fatigue,” or overloading people with alerts to the point where they stop taking any such warnings seriously.
Making sure emergency alerts reach the people who need them is one thing. But the city’s alerts are only as effective as the messages officials choose to send — which have at times lacked crucial and actionable information.
The city hopes a contractor can improve the system, by using feedback from residents.
The $310,000 Request for Proposals, funded through the city’s Operations Transformation Fund, requires the awardee to do an “inclusive” community outreach process in Eastwick to gather feedback on the content, timing, and delivery method of emergency alerts. Further, the awardee must develop a place-based messaging pilot for the neighborhood based on this feedback and leave OEM with updated standard operating procedures to implement it.
“What do the people in that community want to know before a storm or during a storm or after a storm?” Giardina said. “Taking that information and crafting our messaging … to reflect what the community’s needs are so that they can best prepare, respond during the event, and recover from an event, without having to interpret or use a generic message just driven across the whole city.”
The new, custom emergency alert system should be in place this summer, Giardina said.
The contractor will also look at tying emergency alerts to actual flood conditions in the neighborhood, rather than citywide weather forecasts. They’ll evaluate existing and potential new monitoring technology in the neighborhood, which Giardina said could include rain gauges or cameras. OEM has $200,000 in grant funds set aside for implementing this part of the project. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Philadelphia Water Department, already operates one monitoring station along Darby Creek in Eastwick, and two others along the Cobbs Creek outside the neighborhood.
“When … the creek comes up at a certain level, some sort of a warning system should go off,” said Moseley, of Eastwick United. “Because we are prone to flooding, something has to be put in place … to warn people to get out of harm’s way.”
OEM’s project is in response to requests from Eastwick residents, Moseley said, who’ve been talking about the need for flood alerts for at least two decades.
The majority-Black neighborhood was built near the point where two creeks merge. Repeated flooding has damaged homes, destroyed cars, forced residents to be evacuated by boat, and left people with emotional scars. Climate change only promises to make the problem worse.
According to OEM, the city can reach over half of the population of the ZIP code containing Eastwick with its low- and mid-level alert tools. Moseley is signed up for ReadyPhiladelphia, but said she doesn’t remember receiving information specific to flooding in Eastwick.
Alerts should include detailed information, Moseley said, like places to move your car that will be safe from flooding, and when to evacuate. They should come early enough that residents have time to react. And there should be an audible alarm for neighbors who are less plugged into technology.
“Then perhaps even have a list of seniors, who may have mobility issues and might need more assistance in getting out of harm’s way,” she said.
OEM officials say solutions like an audible alarm or city officials going door-to-door to deliver flood warnings are likely outside the scope of the recently issued RFP.
To Moseley, an effective alert system is just the first step. She says the community needs a clear evacuation plan, including a dedicated place for people to go.
“People just want to feel safe,” she said.
Sign up for emergency alerts in Philadelphia by texting “ReadyPhila” to 888-777 or by creating an account online.