Leadership

Electronic Billboards: The Rise of a Digital Emergency Tool

By / May 29, 2015 (Mack Male/Flickr)

Look up: That flashy electronic billboard may be important to your safety. Outdoor advertising groups are working to relay emergency messages on the signs when needed.

Today, there are 5,500 electronic signs—a small portion of the total 400,000 billboards nationwide.

But, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), these fancy billboards could prove to be of outsized importance down the road, especially in the case of emergencies.

OAAA is working to ensure that officials in the 46 states that have these billboards use them for more than just advertising.

“There’s an immediacy and flexibility to it that makes it different,” Ken Klein, spokesman for OAAA, told the Huffington Post. “Digital billboards have emerged as an increasingly common tool for emergency communication.”

Already, the billboards have come in handy during Boston’s heavy snowfall earlier this year, in Georgia during an ice storm last year, and in New Mexico during a gas shortage.

“One of the big things we do in emergency management is try to get life-saving information to people as quickly as possible, so they can take the appropriate action,” Bryan W. Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said to the Huffington Post.

And he believes the digital-billboard route is a strong tool for that work: “We use every channel we’ve got, and this is a good one,” Koon s.

Good, But Not Perfect

That said, tech billboards remain controversial: Some people say the signs are distracting and too bright; some cities in America have banned them.

And they are susceptible to hacks. There was a case in Atlanta where an electronic billboard was hacked to show a not-safe-for-work shock image.

OAAA is aware of the danger of hacks. “I think every operator takes this very seriously and tries to implement procedures that would minimize anyone doing that,” OAAA’s Digital Billboard Committee Chair Bill Ripp told WABE.

Filling a GAP

Despite opposition, at least six states have signed on to work with companies hosting digital billboards, Klein said.

Florida was the first state to use digital signage under Koon’s leadership, during the active hurricane season in 2008—and the potential for the signs became evident.

After the Florida Outdoor Advertising Associations said it would do emergency messaging for free, use of the signs quickly took off—with a 10-day slew of 37 alerts on 75 billboards across the state.

The process is really easy: State officials contact FOAA, and the group puts the authorized message into a template, along with the requested locations where it should display. FOAA then sends it to the companies who host the boards—and, just like that, the information is up for all drivers to see.

“If people on the interstate are driving along at 70 miles an hour, they may not even know what county or city they are in. There’s an information vacuum,” Koon noted. “Electronic billboards fill in this information gap.”

Patrick deHahn

Patrick deHahn is a contributor to Associations Now. More »

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