A case study in community engagement: Ensuring safety at the 2017 Presidential Inauguration

By Thomas Crane

Hundreds of thousands of Americans traveled to Washington, D.C. on the weekend of January 20th to either show support for the 45th Presidential Inauguration of Donald Trump or to participate in the Women’s March and other demonstrations. With so many people expected to visit the capital during what the U.S. Department of Homeland Security deemed a “National Special Security Event,” agencies such as Washington D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management and United States Park Police prepared for several months to ensure the safety for both event-goers and area residents.

With the politics surrounding the event, local and federal law enforcement also needed to prepare for – and effectively manage – potential protestors and all different types of participants that may make their way to the crowd. Events of this magnitude require agencies to be prepared for the worst, such as severe weather, civil disturbances, or even worse, physical attacks and violence. However, this presents a challenge, as large-scale events require collaboration between a host of agencies, volunteers and multiple state departments who don’t typically work together. For the inauguration, the D.C. Government needed to seamlessly work in union with not only the U.S. Park Police, Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA), Secret Service, National Guard and D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services (FEMS), but also dozens of neighboring police and fire departments in the National Capital Region and hundreds of event volunteers.

While it is common for local, state and federal agencies to have interoperability and compatibility communications challenges when responding with other jurisdictions, one thing that was extremely helpful during the Presidential Inauguration weekend was utilizing a critical communication platform that provided effective means to communicate, coordinate, and gather situational awareness to manage the weekend’s events.

Below are three important lessons learned from the Inauguration that can help other government agencies prepare for similar large-scale events.

Follow the Preparedness Cycle

One key factor that helped D.C. and federal agencies prepare for the historic weekend was using the preparedness cycle as a guideline: plan, organize, equip, train and exercise.  To start, agencies should look at the upcoming event and highlight the biggest challenges. In the case of the Inauguration, D.C. agencies knew that it would be difficult to communicate with a huge, diverse crowd consisting of both tourists and residents. The agencies also knew that it would have to standardize communications in order to ensure all of the key organizations involved in maintaining public safety were on the same page at all times. With these realizations in mind, D.C. and federal agencies could begin drafting a plan that tackled those changes head-on, including implementing a critical communication platform that offered the right tools to reach the right people on the right device, at the right time.

Test Emergency Message Systems in Advance

D.C. agencies needed to be prepared in case an event or situation occurred that put residents or visitors at risk of being harmed. That’s where the train and drill phases of the preparedness cycle come into play.

On the Sunday before the Inauguration, HSEMA hosted a full-day dress rehearsal in D.C.’s emergency operations center, including testing the wireless emergency alerts system. This gave the agencies confidence that the system would perform correctly prior to a real-world emergency. Testing the system gives HSEMA time to manage any potential issues so everything runs smoothly if a real emergency occurs.

Choose and Promote an Opt-In Keyword

One of the biggest challenges that government agencies face in their mass communications strategies is getting residents and visitors to opt-in to event alerts. To promote the Inauguration keyword, the United States Park Police and HSEMA created a robust marketing plan, focusing mainly on old-fashioned marketing techniques and social media. Washington D.C. emergency managers created large signage that was clear and simple, and placed the messages on telephone poles surrounding the event. In addition, the United States Park Police, HSEMA and D.C. Metropolitan Police Department used their Facebook and Twitter accounts to encourage more residents, visitors and attendees to opt-in for the latest safety messages. Finally, public safety officials encouraged residents and visitors to text the keyword INAUG to 888-777 during the actual Inauguration to receive the latest information and updates leading up to and throughout the event.

Creating a keyword simplifies the registration process as people don’t have to create a profile on a website or sign up for alerts in an area they don’t live. Instead, they can simply text the designated keyword straight from their mobile device and know they will get the most up-to-date information, even if cell towers become unreliable.

Presidential Inaugurations come every four years, but major events regularly occur all across the nation. If government agencies focus on putting a plan in place early, organizing and equipping their team, testing their communication system before the event and selecting and promoting a keyword, they will be better prepared to manage any situation that comes their way.


Thomas Crane is the Senior Solutions Consultant at Everbridge, a communication technology provider that powered messages and provided technical support during and leading up to President Trump's Inauguration and the Women's March. 

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