Second thoughts about public alert systems

Published 11 July 2009

Public alert systems, which the authorities use to send messages about disasters to citizens’ cell phones and computers, have become popular among cities and localities; more and more of these localities, though, have began to question the efficacy and cost of these systems

Cities are having second thoughts about alerting residents to natural disasters and catastrophes through their cellphones and computers because of the expense, technological hurdles, and whether it is the best way to warn.

USA Today’s Alan Gomez writes that alert systems that issue e-mails and text messages for catastrophes big and small — from tornadoes to traffic jams — have been adopted across the United States. Many communities are satisfied with the systems, but others say their experiences have been rocky.

When a tornado was reported near Fort Collins, Colorado, in June, about 100,000 people who were supposed to receive alerts via their cellphones and e-mail inboxes never got the message. The tornado did not materialize, and nobody was hurt, but the failure led the local police agency that operates the program to retrain its users and the software company that developed the software to rework the system.

Kimberly Culp, executive director of the Larimer Emergency Telephone Authority which oversees the Fort Collins program, said such glitches are expected with a program that is 10 months old. “Of course there’s going to be hiccups along the way,” she said.

Then there is the cost. Gomez writes that some agencies pay annual fees to wireless service providers — such as Larimer’s $95,000-a-year contract to send an unlimited number of messages — and some pay per message sent.

Houston officials aren’t happy with the cost and want the telecommunications industry to chip in. “We’re trying to get out there and say, ‘This is for emergency purposes,’” said Joe Laud of the Houston Emergency Center. “But of course, (wireless providers) are not in the public sector. They are in business to stay in business. That’s where the static is.”

That rift has prompted communities to look to the federal government for help.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) just started a two-year study to analyze the available technology, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is working with wireless carriers to figure out how best to use their systems. “We’re going to wait and see what the feds develop,” said David Maxwell, Arkansas’ emergency management director.

A federal warning system, if it ever occurs, will not become available before 2010, said Ann Buckingham, acting assistant administrator for FEMA’s National Continuity Programs Directorate.

Maxwell said a federal system is needed because many states cannot get alerts out to all areas equally under existing wireless systems. Some stress that communities should not rely too heavily on new technologies. “We can’t use technology as an excuse to forget the basics: knocking on people’s doors, sending police cars down the road with a loud speaker,” said Kelly Huston, assistant secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency.