Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Do Alert Notifications Fail to Live up to Expectations?

Recent emergencies illustrate issues with automated telephone alerting systems.

Waldo Canyon Fire damage
The American flag flies high over homes burned by the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., in early July. Photo courtesy of Michael Rieger/FEMA

Wildfires that threatened lives and property of Colorado residents in El Paso and Teller counties this year were the most destructive wildfires in state history — 29 square miles around Colorado Springs burned, destroying more than 340 homes, and causing two deaths and personal property damage exceeding $352 million.

To facilitate evacuations, authorities used a jointly operated telephone alerting system and made fire-related calls to the public in the Waldo Canyon area on 48 different occasions.  

Using this system, more than 32,000 people were evacuated from their homes, but the limits of automated telephone alerting systems were clearly exposed. Efforts to call at least 20,000 homes failed, and some residents said they never received a call to evacuate. 

The problems with the Waldo Canyon telephone alerts have attracted attention because of the situation’s seriousness, but the same types of challenges have been reported nationwide. The telephone alerting systems’ main problems can be broken down into two general, yet contradictory, categories: 

  • In some situations, officials did not have residents’ telephone numbers, making calls impossible.
  • In other cases, something went wrong with the local automated notification system and calls weren’t delivered, perhaps because too many calls were being made.

Lack of telephone numbers is often a byproduct of the fact that many homes no longer have land lines. Where land lines are used, obtaining telephone numbers isn’t difficult. Databases can be purchased that include most land line telephone numbers, including unlisted numbers through the same databases used by 911 centers to help identify a caller’s location. Even as people replace their traditional land lines served through a telephone company (called a “switched access line”) with voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), land line numbers are generally available. The FCC ensured this by requiring that VoIP phone numbers be published.

Even with increases in VoIP lines, the number of land lines — whether VoIP or switched access — has dropped, while the number of cellphones has increased significantly. Because there’s no central repository of cellphone numbers, local public safety officials don’t have these numbers to call. The only entities that know the numbers are the individual cell companies, of which there are more than 180 — and they do not disclose their customers’ phone numbers.

In fact, the number of phone lines in the U.S. — both switched access and VoIP — dropped from 162.7 million in 2008 to 145.8 million in 2011, according to a report issued by the FCC’s Local Telephone Competition in June 2012. During the same time frame, mobile telephone subscribers increased by more than 5 million. According to CTIA—The Wireless Association, there are more than 331 million wireless telephone subscribers in the U.S.

Evacuees who relied solely on a cellphone for their home phone only received a call if they’d signed up for it.

The Denver Post found that fewer than 13,000 of the 525,000 adults in El Paso and Teller counties had registered their cellphones to receive emergency alerts prior to the fires. Sign-up rates were not much better in two other large Colorado counties that experienced recent wildfires.

However, since the El Paso and Teller wildfires, cellphone number sign-ups have increased. Local officials said that during the Waldo Canyon fire, more than 35,000 people signed up to receive emergency alerts in El Paso and Teller counties.

Other communities have reported an increase in alert system registrations during or immediately after an emergency, but often too late to have an impact during the incident.

The two people who died in the Waldo Canyon fire had not signed up to receive alerts via their cellphones, and they didn’t have a home phone number listed, according to local authorities.

Some communities across the country have been aggressive, even creative, in convincing the public to sign up. Dubuque, Iowa, offered a financial incentive. The city agreed to waive fines for illegal parking in snow clearance routes if residents signed up to receive automated notifications. If they didn’t sign up, they could be fined $30 per violation. San Diego County offered free pizza to the first 500 people who registered their mobile phones with the local alerting system. In Santa Clara County, Calif., local officials used TV, radio and print ads to encourage sign-ups. The ads were not typical public service announcements, but were humorous and creative. Eddie Kurtz of Circlepoint, the company that produced the ads, said the campaign shunned a fear-based approach and instead tapped into personal relationships and everyday people. The county used the slogan, “I love you. Please sign up.”

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