While digital billboards still face plenty of opposition in some locales, their advocates have one argument that can’t be denied. Digital signage is an effective tool for communicating with the public during emergencies, like the Boston Marathon attack and the law enforcement manhunt that followed, as well as missing persons cases and major weather events.
Immediately after the Boston attacks, Clear Channel Outdoor reached out to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to offer assistance, according to CCO senior vice president and CMO Vicki Lins. MEMA used seven CCO digital billboards along I-93 and other major roadways in the Great Boston area to broadcast critical public safety messages.
In the days following the Boston Marathon attacks, when the FBI was concerned the suspects may have fled Massachusetts, FBI spokeswoman Jacqueline Maguire said partnerships with digital signage operators allowed the bureau to blanket the East Coast with photos of the suspects as far south as Washington, D.C. Photos were displayed on digital bus shelters along with the FBI hotline, 1-800-Call-FBI.
Digital signage has proven effective in numerous missing person alerts, Maguire noted, and have even helped generate leads for “cold cases.” Digital billboards along the I-95 corridor also helped the FBI apprehend a serial rapist in the mid-Atlantic area by publicizing composite sketches of the suspect.
Overall, Lins said 46 fugitives have been captured as a result of leads originating from someone who saw the images on CCO’s digital signage. Federal agents have partnerships with a number of other billboard operators as well.
Peter J. Elliott, the U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio, confirmed that digital billboards have played a role in “capturing many sexual offenders and violent fugitives,” including some stories that sound like something out of a movie.
In one case, a convict who was incarcerated for raping an 8-year-old managed to escape from prison in northern Ohio and went on the run with a four-year-old girl and her mother. The U.S. Marshals, who had reason to believe the suspect fled to the West Coast, contacted digital billboard partners and “within seven or eight hours, we had photos up across Southern California and Nevada. Someone saw it in Nevada, remembered seeing them -- supposedly a father and daughter -- in San Diego, called the hotline, and he was arrested,” with the girl recovered safely. The whole process took less than 24 hours, according to Elliott, who emphasized the national reach and quick turnaround time afforded by digital billboards.
Digital billboards are also critical for disseminating information and instructions during major weather events.
Lins noted that authorities in Minneapolis turned to the company’s billboards to warn the public when tornadoes were approaching earlier this month, helping reach drivers who may not have heard tornado sirens. She added that digital billboards can be updated directly and in real time from an emergency agency’s RSS or Twitter feed, simplifying the process considerably.