Black Helicopters Overhead

Photo: Alamy

Yes, I get messages from the government. They text me, and e-mail me, and tell me when things are going to happen. I swear. Like the other day, when I got word that military helicopters would be flying low over my neighborhood between midnight and dawn. It’s good to know these things, even if my friends don’t always believe me.

A few weeks ago, I began to notice more notifications than usual. I belong to the subgroup of New Yorkers—bird-watchers, meteorologists, UFO believers—who like to look at the sky, so when I heard about the helicopters, I stayed up past the monologues and scanned the horizon with binoculars. Nothing. But when the sun came up, the heavy-air-thudding helicopters had arrived. They were, the government told me, “surveying,” which looks a lot like something you’d see on the TV news during the Nixon years. The next evening there were more messages about surveys and low-flying military planes, and then the government told me about something called “Coast Guard Pyrotechnic Training” off the coast of Staten Island. Naturally, I was a little concerned.

So I called the government, or more precisely, I called the city’s Office of Emergency Management, whose Notify NYC initiative is responsible for texting (and tweeting) me and about 46,000 other New Yorkers who have signed up to receive official notifications about emergency events. This call elicited an invitation to the OEM headquarters on Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn, a place that is both highly secure and cheerfully relaxed: You can win OEM prizes, like an emergency-preparedness kit that goes to the Ready New Yorker of the Month. The surveying, I learned on a tour, is being done by the city’s long-term planning office, which is using laser sensors to collect topographic data. Other tour highlights include a visit to the giant room you see the mayor in during snowstorms, and a glimpse of a map of odor reports about the famous maple-syrup smell that perplexed New Yorkers until it was revealed in 2009 to be from a chemical factory in the Meadowlands (which common sense would have told you).

In Watch Command, a dark room with FAA hotlines and power-feed monitors, the mood was relatively emergency-free—a state OEM people call “peacetime.” At a desk surrounded by five computer screens sat Adam Sussman, an OEM technician who hits the send button on Notify NYC. Here then was the man who had recently notified me of a bank-robbery scene being filmed on Reade Street.

At one point, a nonemergency meeting was arranged with Joseph F. Bruno, the OEM commissioner, and Henry Jackson, the deputy commissioner of technology. “We determine the significant events that should go out,” said Bruno, who has led OEM during the blackouts (2006); the Brooklyn tornado (2007); two major crane collapses (2008); and, most recently, the race to set up cots at JFK in the wake of the Icelandic ash cloud.

Notify NYC, Bruno said, began in 2007, and in its early days, it tended to undernotify. Then Air Force One flew over the Statue of Liberty while pursued by jet fighters for a White House photo op. People freaked. “It taught us,” Bruno said. “We were surprised that people want to hear about the flyovers. But people in lower Manhattan are generally uncomfortable with low-flying planes.”

Still, the uptick in messages in the last few weeks raises the possibility of notification overload. “Nobody can say, ‘This is the threshold,’ ” Jackson said. “We get a lot of e-mails, and sometimes people say, ‘Why are you sending us this stuff?’ and sometimes people say, ‘Thanks!’ ”

“It’s a balance,” said Bruno. The notification about the filmed bank robbery? “An older person might think it is a real robbery,” he said.

Asked if he regretted any of the notification decisions he had made, Bruno raised the matter of odors. Odors are a hard call when it comes to notification decision-making—is a notification calming?—and he began to mention a particular odor notification, but stopped himself. Then he looked up, his face calm. “No,” he said.

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Black Helicopters Overhead