CITYWIDE — Whether you prefer the nickname “Tech Coast” or “Silicon Beach,” Santa Monica sells itself as a place that sits on the technological frontier and uses that capability to improve both its economy and its citizens’ lives.
Even here, however, city officials are putting on a full-court press to get residents to embrace myriad high tech solutions to a traditionally low-tech problem — connecting with local government.
It’s certainly something that Lt. Kenneth Semko, head of Santa Monica’s new Office of Emergency Management, thinks about a lot.
Semko was appointed to lead the new organization after it was created last year.
The office has already begun work preparing the city for a potential tsunami, and will soon begin training teams of residents to be the front liners in the event that police or fire can’t make it to the scene of a disaster in time.
But getting word out during disasters is a whole other beast.
Santa Monica contracted with Everbridge, a Glendale-based firm that specializes in mass text message technology to communicate critical information to residents when disaster strikes.
City Hall already has the ability to access Santa Monica’s 186,000 landlines, but with more and more Americans ditching traditional landline technology for cellphones, text messaging becomes a valuable tool.
According to a 2011 report by the National Center for Health Statistics, three out of every 10 American homes use cell phones exclusively for their communication.
In addition, one out of every six received all their calls on their cell phones despite having a landline.
In Santa Monica, only 3,327 people have signed up for City Hall’s new SMAlerts system, which can send out text messages and e-mails regarding everything from traffic updates to information on power outages and natural disasters.
Semko “almost hit the floor” when he was told that a 3 percent enrollment rate is considered a success.
“We’re already over that for our community, and we’ll keep aggressively pushing the system,” Semko said. “We’d like to get it to the 10 percent range. That’s unheard of.”
The problem is education. Similar to the “I’ve Got 7” campaign, which encouraged residents to keep seven days worth of supplies on hand in case of an earthquake or other disaster, people just haven’t heard of SMAlerts.
According to the 2011 community survey, only 11 percent of respondents said they’d heard anything about the “I’ve Got 7” campaign, and only 3 percent said they’d heard “a lot.”
The idea gets a good response after public presentations where employees come armed with laptops and wireless cards to help people sign up on the spot, Semko said.
“It’s getting people to take the time to sit down and do it. It’s a five minute process,” he said. “If you call us, we’ll do it for you. I want those numbers in there in case we need to reach them in an emergency.”
Tom Casale, a spokesperson for the mass-text marketing company Simplified Alerts, said sign-up numbers go up when alerts start going out.
Simplified Alerts focuses on small organizations like sports teams and businesses for its text message solutions.
When the first soccer mom shows up to a game only to find out that it was canceled for weather and others knew in advance, she signs up, Casale said.
“We see sign up increase to 50 percent and sometimes to almost 100 percent the first time that alert goes out and people feel left out,” Casale said.
Santa Monica officials hope that they don’t have to go through a major emergency to give people incentive to sign up.
“Santa Monica is a really active community and I can see this thing really blossoming,” Semko said. “No one else is doing this, but Santa Monica has new numbers. We just introduced this in September. In that six months, the fact that we are way over the national average is great.”