Digital Billboard Plan Helps FEMA During Superstorm Sandy

November 7, 2012

Digital signage used to spread emergency messages at no cost to the taxpayer.

During Hurricane Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Outdoor Advertising Association of America worked together closely to provide the public with rapid disaster-related messages at no cost to taxpayers. The medium for these messages was digital signage.

As part of a new program initiated during the storm, FEMA officials were able to post emergency messages on digital billboards along the East Coast in storm-impacted states. The messages were relayed from FEMA through OAAA thanks to a public/private partnership formally signed by FEMA and OAAA last month.

Thousands of citizens were better and more quickly informed about the destructive storm because of the digital billboard initiative. FEMA messages ran thousands of times in the District of Columbia and 10 states: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

New messages were relayed throughout the storm and then posted under the new system. In each case, the entire process — from request to posting — took less than 15 minutes. Digital billboards can change messages about every eight seconds.

"Being able to get disaster information out to the public in a highly visible way is absolutely critical to our efforts," said FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate. "We appreciate the work that OAAA and its members are doing to help with disaster response and recovery efforts. Collaboration like this really underscores how the private sector is a vital partner in the emergency management team."

“The best thing about FEMA/OAAA collaboration is that it’s providing a critical public service at no additional cost for the taxpayer,” said Ken Klein, executive vice president of OAAA. “Our member companies view the partnership as a civic duty and have agreed to provide space on their billboards for free whenever emergencies occur. This is a prime example of a public/private partnership that will help the public when it needs help the most.”

FEMA and OAAA began an informal collaboration last year. During the busy tornado season — and again during Hurricane Irene — FEMA worked with OAAA to use high-tech digital billboards to relay vital information to local citizens. In some cases, the billboards were the only structures left standing after the storms had passed. After the first collaborations, both FEMA and OAAA agreed that more could be done and that their cooperation should be streamlined, speeded up and institutionalized for the benefit of the public.

Lamar Advertising, an OAAA member, developed a free online template for FEMA’s use. The highly secure tool gives FEMA the ability to post important emergency information on digital billboards within minutes in the heart of disaster zones.

A FEMA official in each of the agency’s regions is now able to determine the need to distribute information in the midst of or following a disaster. The regional official can use a passcode and login to get into Lamar’s secure website and draft a message that would be of immediate use to people in the disaster area.

Once completed, the message is sent online from the regional office to FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C. There, an official is able to review the message online to alter and/or to approve it. The billboard text and design is then emailed — as a jpeg — from FEMA to OAAA in two formats, one for large billboards and the second for small billboards.

When the jpegs arrive at OAAA, an employee sends both of them to digital billboard operators in the FEMA-designated counties. The operators, in turn, convert the jpegs into images usable on digital billboards and put them immediately into the rotation of images on billboards all over the region. The multiple approvals move quickly, but they’re needed to prevent unauthorized usage.

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