Contra Costa County, Calif., Coordinates Emergency Response with Messaging Solution

Alerting system provides for messages in multiple languages other than English.

by / April 23, 2009

It was a Monday morning in January 2007 when a fire at a Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, Calif., sent soot and unburned petroleum into the air making it unsafe for residents to be outside. The county was notified of the fire at 5:26 a.m., and the first Community Warning System siren sounded an alert for residents to shelter in place at 5:32 a.m. However, a problem with the reverse 911 system prevented nearby residents from getting the message for an hour according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The order was lifted at 8:39 a.m. after the fire was extinguished, and the Contra Costa Health Services issued an "all clear." Fortunately only one person was injured. A refinery employee at the scene of the fire was treated at a local hospital and released, Chevron said in a press release issued after the fire.

After the incident, the county -- which includes 19 cities in the San Francisco Bay Area -- augmented its existing community warning system with more advanced technology. The county turned to Honeywell Instant Alert Plus, a Web-based two-way emergency notification service capable of sending 175,000 30-second phone calls and 125,000 text messages in 15 minutes.

The service uses a series of redundant, distributed call center networks to broadcast messages. It also connects to the county's common alerting protocol (CAP) architecture. (CAP is an XML-based standard for distributing warning about threats to public safety over multiple media.) This allows the county to pinpoint messages based on location and alert residents, both English speakers and non-English speakers, at a push of a button.

How It Works

During an emergency, the community warning system's GIS mapping program outlines the impacted neighborhoods on a Web-based map. Then through CAP integration, the program taps into the county's enhanced 911 database, identifying resident phone numbers within the designated area. The database then links to Instant Alert Plus, which sends a message to residents in the impacted area.

The county has also integrated Instant Alert Plus with an experimental, multilingual technology that delivers messages to non-English speaking residents in the affected area. The county provides these residents with a special box that connects to a household phone. When the county sends an alert in English, the broadcast also includes a brief data burst that causes the box to play a prerecorded "shelter in place" or "all clear" message in the household's preferred language. Residents can take the boxes with them if they move within the county.

"The Common Alerting Protocol is the heart of our community warning system," said Art Botterell, the Contra Costa County Sheriff's community warning system manager, in a press release. "The time saved by having the warning systems work together is crucial to delivering important information that affects the safety of our residents."

After the county distributes an alert, emergency officials can immediately view real-time reports generated by the service to see if the alert reached all of the intended households. In addition, the system's message recipients can use the system's two-way communication function to request help if they need assistance or are in danger.

Coordinating Response

In addition to alerting residents, the system also helps the county organize first responders during emergencies. Officials can create multiple lists that contain a variety of contact information including multiple phone numbers and e-mail addresses for emergency response team members. The county can then send first responders customized messages to these lists providing details and direction on how to help. In addition, decision-makers can be teleconferenced in to discuss changes in the situation and formulate a response plan.

The system also facilitates day-to-day operations for the county's emergency services and public health personnel. The county uses the system to communicate new safety measures and policies to the first responder community, while public health officials use the system to communicate with the public regarding any outbreaks.

"Our confidence in the system allows us to move beyond simply sending messages, giving us free reign to explore additional ways to strengthen emergency response plans and help keep residents safe," Botterell said in the press release. The county is working with Honeywell to develop new ways to use the system. For example, the county is developing a way to let residents sign up to receive alerts on their cell phones, in addition to their home phones, in case of an emergency.