Californians upset over warning system failure
SAN DIEGO – Barbara Levine went to sleep Oct. 21 believing she would get an automated phone call from the city’s brand-new emergency notification system if a wildfire raging miles away threatened her home.The call never came – at least not before flames hopscotched into her suburban neighborhood, destroying her house and 372 others. Instead, a police officer who lived down the block knocked on her door at 5 a.m. and said it was time to flee.Other homeowners in San Diego’s Rancho Bernardo neighborhood are telling similar stories of computerized warning calls that came too late or not at all. They were awakened by neighbors, the screech of fire engines or by the sound of embers pattering against windowpanes like raindrops.In the aftermath of this fall’s devastating wildfires in Southern California, San Diego’s “reverse 911″ system was widely hailed for helping to mobilize the biggest evacuation in state history. But the disaster also exposed serious flaws that can render such systems useless in emergencies.Among other things, calls won’t get through in some households if phone lines are down, the power is out, the circuits are overloaded, or people have call-blocking activated. Even if none of those glitches gets in the way, it can take hours for these systems to plow through lists of phone numbers.Now, some residents are calling for low-tech backup warnings like sirens and bullhorns.”The fact is, we were sitting ducks,” said Levine, 43, who fled with her husband and children in bumper-to-bumper traffic, embers whipping overhead. “Our neighborhood was burning and we didn’t know it.”It is not clear exactly how many of thousands of people who were directly in the fire’s path that night didn’t get warnings.City officials acknowledged that whole neighborhoods didn’t start receiving calls until the flames were upon them.The city system, activated in September, was used along with San Diego County’s older telephone-notification setup to help evacuate more than a half-million people. No one got caught by the fires as they left their homes – a dramatic change from 2003, when seven people in the county burned to death in their cars as they tried to flee.All together, the Southern California fires destroyed more than 2,000 homes and killed 10 people as they blackened some 800 square miles.Preliminary logs show that more than 89,000 calls went out over the city’s emergency system telling residents to evacuate to Qualcomm Stadium, said Donna Faller, a program manager with the city’s homeland security office.In Rancho Bernardo, phones didn’t start ringing until 4 a.m., around the same time that billowing columns of fire blew into city limits. Home videos posted on YouTube show roaring flames over houses as residents screech away in their cars.Fire officials, loath to unnecessarily evacuate people late on a Sunday, had established a series of trigger points for sending out emergency calls as a fire bore down on San Diego’s northeastern edge. But then a new blaze started much closer to the city between 1 and 2 a.m. and blew into subdivisions on gale-force winds, said San Diego fire spokesman Maurice Luque.”The reverse 911 system wasn’t as effective as it would have been if the fire had proceeded as we expected,” Luque said.Once it was activated, it still took about two hours for computers to place recorded calls with evacuation instructions to nearly 14,000 phone numbers listed in the danger zone. Overloaded circuits, power and phone outages and other technical glitches may have slowed the system, according to Faller, who said the setup can place 11,500 calls per hour.”We got a message at 8:15 a.m. from reverse 911, which was about four hours after 70 homes in the neighborhood went up,” said Mike Bartholomew, a mortgage broker who sped away from the inferno on his block just after 4 a.m., when he was awakened by the wail of fire engines nearby. “The calls went out, but not until hours after we would all have been incinerated.”Even if calls go through, residents may not get alerts for other reasons. San Diego’s system doesn’t have access to cell phone or Internet phone books, though people without land lines can register their numbers with the county. People can be skipped if they have recently moved, and sometimes addresses aren’t read properly by mapping programs that generate phone lists, Faller said.Emergency experts say that while reverse 911 systems can be invaluable, they work best in fast-moving disasters when backed up by sirens or other means of blaring warnings to entire neighborhoods.”I’m a big fan of redundant systems – the idea is to hit people in every aspect of their daily lives,” said Mark Ghilarducci, an emergency-management expert with James Lee Witt Associates.Many cities in hurricane or tornado zones set off sirens as storms approach. Sacramento never scrapped its Cold War-era siren system, and San Francisco has spent $2 million in federal grants retrofitting sirens to broadcast recorded messages. Virginia Tech has installed sirens since the massacre there last April.”Sirens were phased out a long time ago because people didn’t want them in their neighborhoods,” said Jeff Bowman, San Diego’s former fire chief and a fierce critic of the fire response. “They were loud, but they did exactly what they were supposed to do.”Levine – an engineer who rattles off reasons why telephone warning systems can fail in a crisis – agreed San Diego should consider similar backup technology. “I want the lowest-tech solution possible,” she said.Nevertheless, experts said that when danger is clearly approaching, residents should not wait to be told what to do.”I call it the 911 syndrome – people think they call 911 in any circumstance and they’ll be there to help,” Ghilarducci said. “But, I mean, there’s a certain amount of responsibility the public has to take.”
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