Category Archives: Social Marketing and Strategic Communications

Getting the Word Out

Outdoor Public Warning System

We call it the Outdoor Public Warning System. What do you call it?

Today is Day 1 of San Francisco’s 3-day tsunami exercise and we’re practicing the City’s alert and warning procedures.  Say what?!? It’s how we get the word out in an emergency- in this case a tsunami.  For City leaders and top emergency officials, it’s reviewing the decisions needed to send an alert and even call for an evacuation of coastal neighborhoods.  For the emergency operations center staff, it’s executing pre-planned measures to ready themselves and the public for an impending tsunami.  While we won’t actually send alerts to the media, sound the sirens, push text messages, or dominate your Twitter feed- we will practice doing so in a simulated environment.

In a real emergency, we use a number of tools to help get the word out to you. Here’s a rundown of some of tools we have in San Francisco:

The Outdoor Public Warning System 

It has many names- the Burrito Call, the Tuesday Noon Siren, or Charlie Brown’s teacher but the San Francisco’s Outdoor Public Warning System is there to alert residents and visitors of the City about possible danger. Specific emergency announcements can be broadcast over any one (or more) of the 109 sirens which are located on poles and on top of buildings throughout all neighborhoods in San Francisco, Treasure Island, and Yerba Buena.

The sirens are tested at noon every Tuesday. During the weekly test, the siren emits a single 15 second alert tone, similar to an emergency vehicle siren. In the event of a disaster, the 15 second alert tone will sound repeatedly for 5 minutes. For more information visit


AlertSF is a text-based notification system for San Francisco’s residents and visitors. AlertSF will send alerts regarding emergencies disrupting vehicular/pedestrian traffic, watches and warnings for tsunamis, flooding, and Citywide post-disaster information to your registered wireless devices and email accounts. Registrants can also sign up to receive English-language automated information feeds and/or alerts targeted to specific areas of the City. To sign up for AlertSF please visit:

Twitter: @sf_emergency

@SF_Emergency is the Department of Emergency Management’s official Twitter account for emergency public information. In general we provide information on 1) what to do (e.g., avoid the area); and 2) what geographic area is impacted; and 3) whether the incident is related law enforcement, fire, transit, or traffic. Follow us at @SF_Emergency

Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA)

San Francisco can access the Wireless Emergency Alert system to send wireless phones and other enabled mobile devices geographically-targeted, text-like messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area. Basically, if your wireless phone pings a cell tower in San Francisco, we can send you an alert message.  For more information visit:


SF72 moves beyond the concept of building a disaster kit — instead, it will provide accessible tools and simple steps to help San Franciscans connect with one another and support their communities, now and in the event of an emergency.

In an Emergency is the portion of the website that will provide up–to–date information on current emergencies, including a description of the emergency and instructions for any actions that the public should take (e.g., boil water, shelter in place, avoid the area around Civic Center, etc.). This section of the website will become the homepage of SF72 during a major emergency. To learn more visit

The sirens, AlertSF, social media, WEA, and SF72 are just some of the resources we can use to help get the word out.  In the event of tsunami or other major disaster, police, fire fighters, volunteers, and community networks could also help get information to neighborhoods throughout San Francisco.  Finally, we’ll also push out information to the media so they can report what’s going on to you.

Ibahagi Ang Kaalaman (Share the Knowledge)

Bohol Earthquake

The rubble of the Church of Our Lady of Light in Bohol.

Last year the Philippines was hit by not one, but two, disasters in the span of 24 days. A magnitude 7.2 earthquake shook the province of Bohol. It was the deadliest earthquake in the Philippines in 23 years. Three weeks later the most powerful typhoon in history made landfall, resulting in catastrophic damage and loss of life.

The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management will join Mayor Edwin M. Lee and the San Francisco-Manila Sister Cities Committee on a business, cultural, and rebuilding mission to the Philippines. During our mission we’ll meet with emergency managers, first responders, dispatchers, and local authorities from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, Manila Emergency Management, and TaRSIER 1-1-7.

So what is our mission?  Ibahagi Ang Kaalaman — or “Share the Knowledge” in Tagalog.  For an emergency manager, a 9-1-1 dispatcher, and a communicator, it’s about sharing our experiences and best practices.  For our hosts, it’s sharing the hard lessons learned from Mother Nature’s wrath.

Rob Dudgeon

Rob Dudgeon, Deputy Director

Rob Dudgeon’s job includes managing San Francisco’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC).  He often shares his expertise with fellow emergency managers, and has learned valuable lessons from those who have faced disaster first hand.  Rob and his team know the importance of not only sharing information but also resources, and during Hurricane Sandy, Rob’s team gave much-needed relief to tired emergency managers.

Following a disaster it’s natural to want to help.  But often times, well-intentioned people have to be turned away.  This was true in the Philippines.  In his research for this upcoming mission, Rob found that the Philippines had an influx of volunteers following the dual disasters, yet couldn’t accommodate everyone who wanted to help.  We have no doubt that people in San Francisco will help each other in an emergency, yet are we properly prepared for others to come to our aid?  Rob will have in-depth conversations with local authorities and volunteers to share his experiences managing response and recovery, as well as learn how we can most effectively utilize volunteers in an emergency.

Cecile Soto

Cecile Soto, 9-1-1 Operations Manager

Cecile Soto, a Filipina who immigrated to the United States in 1985, has managed everyday emergencies for the past 20 years as a public safety dispatcher.  It is commonly known that in an emergency you call “9-1-1”.  But this was not always the case.  It wasn’t until 1968 that 9-1-1 became the national emergency number in America.  The Philippine national emergency number, 1-1-7, is just over ten years old.

For Cecile, the trip is opportunity to give back to the country of her birth by sharing what she’s learned in her 20 years as a dispatcher.  It’s also an opportunity to gain insight from the texting capital of the world.  The low cost of a cell phone and SMS plan compared to that of a computer and a broadband connection has made texting extremely popular in Philippines.  So naturally, Filipinos can text 1-1-7 in an emergency.  This is something we’re barely starting to do the United States.  Our mission to Bohol includes a visit to their 1-1-7 dispatch center where we will learn first-hand from Filipino emergency dispatchers who are already accepting text messages for police, fire, and medical emergencies.

Francis Zamora

Francis Zamora, Public Information Officer

Francis Zamora, also a Filipino-American, is responsible for communicating with the public during an emergency.  His job is to develop and deliver messages everyone can understand during crisis – whether through the press, social media, or the good ole’ Tuesday Noon Siren (or what some call their Tuesday Burrito Call).

In conversations with relatives and Philippine officials about Typhoon Yolanda, Francis found that many Filipinos simply didn’t understand the danger they faced.  Before Yolanda, there was no Tagalog term for “Storm Surge.”  Now there is some debate as to whether describing the effects of the typhoon as a tsunami, daluyong (big waves), or humbak (swells at sea) would have been more effective.  Understanding “Storm Surge” is even difficult in the United States.  During Hurricane Sandy many people didn’t listen to warnings to get out of water’s way because many didn’t know what “Storm Surge” meant.  For Francis, the trip is an opportunity to meet everyday Filipinos and find out what messages make sense to them.  He’ll spend time with fellow communicators to develop messages everyone – whether in the Philippines or in San Francisco – can understand in an emergency.

There is so much we can share with each other:  In San Francisco, we ask that you connect, prepare, and plan on  In the Philippines, wants to make sure that Manila is a prepared and resilient city. The Philippines recently passed a bill requiring text message disaster alerts.  This week mobile phones throughout the Bay Area flashed numerous Wireless Emergency Alerts.  We can’t assume that what works in San Francisco will work in the Philippines, however we do have an opportunity to listen and share, and perhaps teach others about effectively engaging our communities.

Three staff members from San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management will travel to the Philippines from February 16 to February 24.  Their mission will include exchanges with emergency managers, first responders, and local authorities in Manila and Bohol.  Follow the mission by liking SFDEM on Facebook, following @SF72org on Twitter, or by subscribing to the SFDEM Blog:

The GOOD Design Challenge

The fall season of preparedness began with National Preparedness Month, which is every September. This year we kicked of the nation’s month dedicated to emergency preparedness with the unveiling of an innovative design project spearheaded by AIA San Francisco’s Center for Architecture and Design (AIA SF), a nonprofit charged with educating the public about the value of good design.  AIA SF received a small grant from the National Endowment for the Arts  to help promote “design thinking” as a way to help solve seemingly intractable social issues for nonprofits and city agencies.  AIA SF’s selected design firm, LUNAR, decided to focus on earthquake preparedness.

DEM’s role in the project was to consult with LUNAR on the topic of emergency preparedness (and the challenges we face as a government agency trying to create a cultural adoption of emergency preparedness behavior). LUNAR’s role was to develop concepts that spark conversation and ideas, and design a concept for consideration to any organization with an interest and/or organizational mission to promote emergency preparedness.

Aligning with DEM’s preparedness messaging that shifts the focus from a looming disaster to value-based reasons to prepare (for your family, for your community, for your comfort, etc.) and is explained in LUNAR’s Blog about the project:

“LUNAR’s presentation frames the possibility of shifting the ‘fear’ factor of disaster preparedness to one of desire to be ‘ready.’ And, most importantly, LUNAR has added a sense of cool, something sorely lacking in the field of disaster preparedness,” says Margie O’Driscoll, Executive Director of the American Institute of Architects, San Francisco Chapter. “We hope this work inspires not just the City’s Department of Emergency Management but also the legions of leaders around the country who grapple with the tough issues of disaster preparedness every day.”

The video sums up the project best, so please enjoy! 

Earthquakes Happen!

Last week the California Academy of Sciences opened its newest exhibit: Earthquake. It is an awesome combination of seismic science (who’d have thought that African ostrich chicks and earthquakes have so much in common) and earthquake preparedness education. We were fortunate to be able to work with the exhibit designers regarding the earthquake preparedness section content, and are elated to see the exhibit come to ‘life’. The thought of the masses learning about earthquakes and how to be ready for them has us giddy; but what has us particularly excited is that we were invited to work with the Academy to weave positive and value-based messaging throughout the People Prepare section of the exhibit.

DEM’s Stance on Preparedness Messaging
We have put a lot of thought into our preparedness communications (check out the Preparedness Movement Communications Strategy, which sums up how conduct emergency preparedness communications and outreach). Our goal is to get people to want to be ready—and inspire them to seek out the how to’s of preparedness (check out the DEM Blog Eat Your Vegetables for more on this topic). So, how to get people to want to seek out how to be prepared? By framing preparedness messages around what people care about. That means we need to think about who we are reaching and what they value—and use that as the rallying topic around preparedness.

Value-based messaging brought to life!

How we are Delivering the Message
Last April we worked with our private sector partners to deliver our established positive and value-based preparedness messaging through the Who Are You Shopping For? emergency supplies shopping campaign. And now with the California Academy of Sciences Earthquake Exhibit we have a two year window to deliver our message. At the heart of it: working with other organizations that are conduits to our target audiences is the key to us being able to deliver the message to San Franciscans.

DEM’s QuakeQuiz is a part of the People Prepare section of the exhibit.

Thank you California Academy of Sciences for including DEM’s positive and value-based messaging into the Earthquake Exhibit; we truly believe these messages have the power to ‘stick’ with all of us who live in earthquake-prone regions and will inspire and motivate us to be ready for an earthquake.  BTW, the Shake House exhibit, set inside a replica of a San Francisco Victorian-era dining room is so cool!

The DEM team who worked with California Academy of Sciences exhibit designers on the People Prepare section of the exhibit. From left to right: DEM’s Resilience and Recovery Manager, Alicia Johnson; Strategic Communications Planner, Kristin Hogan; Community Liaison, Doris Padilla; and Deputy Director, Rob Dudgeon.

1st Nationwide EAS Test: Pass or Fail?

Our Tweet asking our followers to share their experience.

Last week’s first ever nationwide simultaneous test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) was a major milestone for alert, notification and warning. A nationwide anything is a huge undertaking.  Congrats to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for making it happen. 

We asked our social media fans and followers what they experienced and many shared their thoughts.  There was some inconsistencies in how long the test lasted and some stations did not run the test at all. So, now we know. That’s the point of the test, as FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate succinctly said, “If we don’t test it, we don’t know what we need to fix.” 

FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said “The nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System test was administered and the FCC and FEMA are currently collecting data about the results. This initial test was the first time we have tested the reach and scope of this technology and what additional improvements that should be made to the system as we move forward. Only through comprehensively testing, analyzing, and improving these technologies can we ensure an effective and reliable national emergency alert and warning system.”

We at DEM were primarily focused on getting the word out about the test.  Because of some technical challenges we knew there could be some who would not understand the “this is a test” message due to hearing disabilities or limited English proficiency.

One of numerous Tweets about the EAS Test.

That the test did not run on every station is something we will leave to the technical experts; however, communicating to our audiences what to expect was the real test for us.  And of particular note, thanks to social media we live in an era where we could ask our audience what they experienced, and actually heard back! For this reason at a minimum, we think the nationwide EAS test was worth the effort and enthusiastically give it a passing grade. 


What we heard from some of our Twitter followers.


Eat Your Vegetables!

Did it work for you when you were a kid? I happened to be one of those odd ones who would eat green peppers and tomatoes like apples and oranges; but this is not the case for most kids. The same goes for emergency and disaster preparedness. Telling people what to do to be ready when bad things happen isn’t working (unless you are one of those who were born ‘liking veggies’, which again, is not the majority). What we as emergency managers need to do is get people to want to be ready—and inspire them to seek out the how to’s of preparedness. So, how to get people to want to seek out how to be prepared? Answer: frame preparedness messages around what people care about. That means we need to think about who we are reaching and what they value—and use that as the rallying topic around preparedness. That takes some careful thought and analysis to understand what our audiences care about (note the ‘s’ at the end of audiences) and communicate around that.  That’s my job at DEM: to boil down what we are trying to accomplish and why; who we need to reach to meet said accomplishement; what we are saying to them (AKA messaging) so they understand what’s being asked; and how to deliver the message so they retain it and act upon it.  (Strategic Communications in a nutshell.)

Though not the natural role of emergency managers, this is not impossible. We at DEM started thinking this way and put our thoughts to paper in September 2009. Our strategy entitled the Preparedness Movement Communications Strategy guides all of our preparedness and resilience communications (we hope you will check it out on We still follow the basics of preparedness messages: make a plan, get a kit, be informed (see our web site: BUT we don’t start with those messages. That’s more of a third or fourth date topic. First, we have to court the audience into wanting to go out on that first and second date. This distinction is what we call the inspirational message (vegetables make us healthy and strong) versus the instructional message (finish your green beans or no dessert).

In San Francisco, we are a prideful, innovative, resourceful, progressive, trail-blazing community. So, that is the cultural value we highlight when talking about preparedness. We connect how being prepared for when bad things happen is celebrating our culture. That we are lucky to live here—and among each other—and that we want to survive, recover and get back to the life we love living here by being prepared. We also want to take the chore out of preparedness (we love to remind folks they are more prepared than they think—because it’s the truth and it makes people feel like they are almost done with their green beans and all the much closer to a bowl of ice cream). That’s the underlying theme we weave in our facebook updates/posts and our tweets; how we ‘act’ when we are at public events; and, who we ‘are’ as emergency managers who, like many, could benefit from a few more brussel sprouts at dinner and have an extra jar of peanut butter in our pantry.

At the heart of the matter, we are emergency managers in a local level emergency management department in a high profile, internationally renowned city that is at high risk for earthquakes—and we are the ones responsible for coordinating the response, restoration and recovery of San Francisco when faced with an emergency and/or disaster. That’s a lot of pressure to get San Franciscans to ‘eat their vegetables’. Luckily we have a ton of farmers markets.