Emergency Alerts - Quickly Reaching Everyone in Harm's Way

Tests show system effectiveness... or lack

COLUMBUS, Ohio, May 14 /PRNewswire/ -- Recent tests show a disturbing problem with many emergency warning systems used by public agencies and universities. That is, they've been known to glitch in emergencies, precisely when they're most needed to save lives, injuries and properties.

A few minutes of advance notice can mean a world of difference and change outcomes when fires are raging, when there is a shooter on campus, when earthquakes or hurricanes are imminent, when a child is kidnapped, or when terrorists strike.

In the wake of recent shootings at Northern Illinois University (NIU) and Virginia Tech last April, colleges have sped up efforts to bring these mass notification systems on board. Tests are underway to determine their ability to quickly send messages.

Test Success. Some are proving highly reliable and effective. In mid-April, a test for OSU's Buckeye Alert, a Twenty First Century Communications system, set a new national standard by sending 22,000 plus phone notifications and 96,000 emails to students in less than 15 minutes with nearly 100 percent success. "The test was extremely successful and timely," said Bob Armstrong, Director of Emergency Management at OSU's Office of Public Safety. "Our benchmark has been about 30 minutes based on other universities."

Some are proving less efficient. Compare this to Texas Tech, whose best test was reported as 90%, or to Boston Tech, which reportedly garnered only a 50% success rate with systems operated by other vendors. In Canada's Essex County, problems are so rife with its Reverse 911 system that only 10% of residents are often notified, says Lakeshore Mayor Tom Bain.

Reaching 100% success is never possible in these tests, because databases used for notifications invariably contain errors, residents may not be home, and while colleges ask students and faculty to 'opt-in', many do not.

Legislation Expected. These challenges will need to be resolved, if legislation before the House passes. A bill proposed as part of the Higher Education Act renewal would require colleges to implement their emergency notification systems within a 30-minute time frame.

Trial by Fire in SoCal. In San Diego, SDSU and Mira Costa in North County signed on in the first quarter of 2008 to use the County's AlertSanDiego system run by Twenty First Century Communications -- virtually the same system used by OSU -- alongside its Reverse-911 system. More good news is that AlertSanDiego costs the universities nothing, unless they decide to activate it to reach students in an emergency situation.

AlertSanDiego was proven in a trial by fire when, on October 22, 2007, it was activated just three days after County staff had received training. At the peak of Southern California's 2007 fire season, 22 fires were burning simultaneously in seven counties, covering more than 370,000 acres.

AlertSanDiego performed seven different geo-targeted alerting campaigns for San Diego County, facilitating the most extensive emergency alert in the county to date. 515,000 residents were evacuated and 20,000 were sheltered. "I don't know how we could have possibly evacuated 515,000 people safely without it. Not one citizen, despite these six very dangerous wildfires, was caught in a fire during the evacuation," stated Ron Lane, San Diego County's Director of the Office of Emergency Services.

During the rains that followed, Twenty First Century uploaded custom online maps developed by San Diego County GIS teams showing the fire perimeter, and alerted 90,000 people vulnerable to flood, mudslides and debris flow.

Since then, all 18 cities in San Diego have signed on to use AlertSanDiego.

Train Derailment. In Riverside County, an early morning train derailment in a populated area near Mecca this March put its alert system to the test, evacuating about 65 people. This system, like its San Diego counterpart, worked well during the train derailments, said Riverside County Fire Department Capt. Fernando Herrera. No one was injured.

Opt-in Options. Websites hosted by OSU, UCSD, San Diego and Riverside Counties allow students and residents to change their contact information to include cell phones and e-dresses. Will text messages be used? Students love them. But FCC regulations will need to be developed prior to their use.

    Diane Shields
    SoCal Communications

    Ellen Grevey
    Director of Corporate Communications
    Twenty First Century Communications
    614-442-1215, ext 262

Web site: http://www.tfcci.com/


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