Do Alert Notifications Fail to Live up to Expectations?

Recent emergencies illustrate issues with automated telephone alerting systems.

by Rick Wimberly / October 3, 2012
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.”

Several alert vendors offer their public safety customers assistance to encourage people to sign up. Linda Young, a spokeswoman for Cassidian Communications, the vendor El Paso and Teller counties use for alerting and notification, said her company is developing a “self-registration success kit” for implementation and promotion of registrations. Twenty First Century Communications (TFCC), which offers large-scale emergency calling systems for places like Los Angeles County, encourages customers to solicit public sign-ups through local schools, hospitals and health-care centers. They also suggest including sign-up reminders in utility bills.

While having too few phone numbers can cause problems, so can having too many phone numbers to call. KMGH-TV in Colorado Springs reported that it reviewed records of more than 118,000 attempted calls and found that more than 22,500 failed or, as the records said, were “abandoned.” According to Cassidian Communications, abandoned means a call was attempted but not completed. This could have been caused by heavy call volume. According to a company representative, officials will know more after calling data is thoroughly analyzed.

Local circuit failures can occur during heavy call volume. People naturally want to talk on the telephone when a threat looms. They seek additional information and want to make sure friends and family are aware of the situation. Additionally, natural skepticism and confusion occur when people are told to take an action like evacuate. The desire to confirm the evacuation order or verify the nature of the emergency also contributes to call volume and pressure on the local calling infrastructure.

A study of the 2007 San Diego wildfires by researchers at the Environmental Sciences Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory — called Results of an Investigation of the Effectiveness of Using Reverse Telephone Emergency Warning Systems in the October 2007 San Diego Wildfires — found that citizens who received a reverse emergency warning call were much likelier to evacuate than those who hadn’t received a call. The study also found that there was an even greater probability that citizens contacted by friends or family would evacuate.

Presumably, the informal contact often occurred by phone, which added to the call volume and potential overloads at a critical point. The overloads could be similar to the Mother’s Day syndrome when circuits can be overtaxed by the unusually high volumes of calls being made.

The real problem is the “last mile,” said Derrick Mar, a former chief technology officer for a company that operates large telephone call-out operations. He said carriers can “do more magic when calls are in the digital form” through a maze of connections. Carriers can reroute calls to follow the path of least resistance — until the calls hit the final phone lines between the last switch in the system and the lines to homes and businesses. These lines are often analog or copper and lack the bandwidth of digital circuits encountered elsewhere. Bottlenecks can occur when more calls reach the last mile than analog switched access lines can handle. Mar said replacement of analog circuits with digital circuits on the last mile have been very slow to come.

Some telephone alerting companies offer to throttle back calls when they detect that the telephone infrastructure has been overloaded. Bentley Cooper, director of product management for TFCC, said his company tries to mitigate overloading problems. He said TFCC has captured significant historical data on calling capacity, and gives customers the ability to set the number of calls to be placed into a specific area.

However, Cooper said the best practice is for local public safety customers to work with their alerting vendor to better understand the local telephone-calling infrastructure. He said TFCC encourages public safety customers to facilitate meetings involving local carrier representatives to discuss potential logjams. This will help set the stage for when an emergency occurs and heavy call volume is expected. The carriers can be warned and then place calls from the alerting system on what Cooper calls a “safe list” to avoid blocking them while they halt suspected mass telemarketing calls during an emergency. Cooper said this requires coordination and relationships established in advance. “It helps when we’ve already established contact with the carrier.” 

Despite best practices, these efforts don’t necessarily solve the problem. Cooper said we often don’t know it’s occurring until it happens. 

“It’s an ongoing problem for vendors,” he said. “You want to send messages fast enough to get the word out quickly without overloading the carrier.”

Based on information from the Oak Ridge study of the San Diego wildfires people want to confirm emergency information before evacuation — often via telephone. It’s safe to say that telephone alerting, despite its imperfections, will continue to play an important role in emergency alerts. 

One of the organizations that faces the realities of telephone alerting and has been successful in working around some of the obstacles is the New York State Office of Emergency Management (OEM).

The OEM created its own alerting system and is offering it to other states for use. The system, called NY-Alert, has more than 5.8 million people in its alerting database. More than 1.7 million have signed up to receive alerts through the system. Registrations amount to approximately 12 percent of the state’s adult population. “Through multimember households and in the workplace, the message will reach the general population that has not yet subscribed,” said OEM spokesman Dennis Michalski, adding that most of the citizens who signed up for the notifications heard about it by word of mouth. And many of the counties in the state have done a good job spreading the word about NY-Alert.

Michalski said more than 100 vendors are involved, including land line, cellular and VoIP carriers. Assistant Director of Technology Kevin Ross said you can’t dictate to the carriers how you want to use their infrastructure during an emergency. “They need to know that you respect their networks and that you know what you’re talking about,” he said.

As part of efforts to reach people who have not signed up for NY-Alert, the OEM plans to become part of FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). Through IPAWS, the office will send short alert messages to mobile devices, even devices owned by those who have not signed up to receive alerts. 

The IPAWS program, the Commercial Mobile Alerting System (CMAS), will send Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) through the cell system and establish relationships with many of the cell carriers in the U.S., including the major ones. The CMAS-WEA initiative launched earlier this year, with the National Weather Service being the first to start issuing alerts through the system. 

In addition to mitigating the challenges of convincing the public to sign up for alerts, CMAS also helps overcome the challenge of overloading telephone lines during an emergency. “CMAS doesn’t send WEA messages through a one-to-one connection as land line and cellphone calls do. Instead, the carriers broadcast the messages and they’re picked up by WEA-enabled mobile devices in the area,” said IPAWS Director Antwane Johnson. “As a result, we’re placing little strain on the carriers’ bandwidth.” 

A process was unveiled this year for local and state authorities to obtain power to start using CMAS. They first apply to the IPAWS office and then to their state. Many of the vendors that provide telephone alerting solutions to public safety organizations are either adapting or planning to adapt their solutions so their customers can send alerts through IPAWS in addition to using telephone calls, emails, text messages and other alerting tools. And the number of mobile devices in the public’s hands that are equipped to receive WEAs is growing. 

Johnson admitted that CMAS doesn’t solve all of the alerting challenges. It provides short text messages to only mobile devices — and only under certain conditions.

Johnson said CMAS is part of a comprehensive alerting system that the IPAWS program is creating that will include other alerting tools. Among them are the Emergency Alert System, approaches for alerting people with disabilities, and Web-based alerts. “Even as IPAWS grows,” Johnson said, “it will not replace existing state and local alerting initiatives but rather enhance them.”