Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Local emergency notification systems

I've personally found very useful the emergency email alerting systems that were implemented by the City of Rockville and Montgomery County, MD. Both governments contracted with RoamSecure to provide emergency email alerts about local emergencies and severe traffic alerts to subscribers via user-selected email, cell phone and pager addresses. The service is free for any subscriber, although cell phone and pager networks may charge a fee for each message received from the service. I've received a variety of different messages using this service, such as warnings about potential tornadoes and ice storms, and severe traffic alerts.

Today I visited the website, looked at their list of customers, and to my surprise, found that it's also apparently up and running in San Francisco and San Mateo. I had been pestering San Francisco and Marin County (where Sausalito is) to use an emergency email alerting system. Marin County is listed as a customer but doesn't appear to have their system operative yet. I signed up for the SF system since I play volleyball in the city and Sausalito is so close to it that I'll want to know about disasters there anyway.

I looked for information about how deaf and hard of hearing people in San Diego might have gotten notified about needing to evacuate. The City of San Diego implemented a new reverse 911 system recently, and apparently, everyone with special needs in the city should have registered on it to communicate what their needs were, but the web site did not provide specific guidance about how to elaborate on this. Reverse 911 can be a real problem for hard of hearing people, most of whom don't have TTYs, as they can have great trouble understanding rapidly recorded messages and not even have a clue what the call is about. The voice of the person calling needs to be very, very clear, but too often people sound strained and rushed, and if there's no option to repeat the message, it can be completely unintelligible to hard of hearing people. With respect to the sign-up page, I personally would have preferred knowing whether I had the option to receive text messages to my cell phone and email accounts in addition to a phone call (a phone call would actually be more effective at waking me up than my cell phone would be since the cell phone can't generate a loud enough low frequency ring for me, and if I could hear the call was about an emergency, I could check my cell phone, email, and local television station).

Since the San Diego Reverse 911 sign-up web page asked for email addresses, personnel might have followed up on all the special needs, but I wouldn't have a lot of confidence in their follow-through. Rather, there should have been a built-in option for email alerts, an option to check whether the phone was a TTY or a single-line CapTel or VCO phone (which need to be called through a special toll-free number), and an option for special communication, like clear speech from a person with low-pitched speech or Spanish, Chinese, or another language. (With so many immigrants in San Diego, it was especially important to be sensitive to the need for communication in Spanish.) It doesn't appear to me that the city or the company who created this sign up page consulted with people expert in hearing loss and language needs.

The flaws of the San Diego sign-up page can be seen at:

I looked for more information and found an article criticizing the city's purchase of this reverse 911 system compared to San Diego County's Internet-based mass notification system, which is supposed to provide a variety of different alerts:

Unfortunately, I couldn't find out any sign-up information for this system, even at:

(However, that web site contains a lot of useful links that could be very helpful to evacuees.)

I've heard that the Reverse 911 system in San Diego didn't apparently appropriately notify deaf people there; it's not clear whether this is because they hadn't signed up for the new system or their information hadn't been processed yet, or because there was no email notification system in place yet. I'd love to hear from any deaf or hard of hearing San Diegans about their experience with the reverse 911 system there (which is required by the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to be accessible to people with disabilities).

Still another resource is the Emergency Email Network at:

I've used this resource for years, but many local emergency management agencies don't send information to it, so it doesn't necessarily provide information about local, non-weather emergencies. It does tend to send weather information and other large area notices, though.

For more information about other vendors of emergency notification technology, see the following directory from Gallaudet University's Technology Assistance Program 's 2005 conference:

Snapshot of KPBS Google Map

Thought I'd show a picture of the Google Map created by as it will probably disappear at some point. I like their selection of icons and their shaded areas showing the estimated burn area and evacuation areas; they also provide a great deal more information when you click on the icons (which you can only do on the actual interactive map, not on the picture above). The interactive map designed by KPBS can currently be seen via the "Interactive Map" featured on the left side of the page at

Southern California Fires

I've been following the wildfires in Southern California and learned that has been doing a good job using two different Internet resources, Twitter and Google Map:

Seems like a good idea to sign up for a Twitter account now just in case it's difficult to do that by cell phone later. Once you've got a Twitter account, then you can sign up for alerts from relevant Twitter pages. Go directly to the KPBS link to their own Twitter page to see an example of the kinds of messages that could potentially be sent to your cell phone if you signed up to a similar web page.

I think how KPBS used the tools of Google Map is also very good. They used different icons that were easy to see, and also sketched out areas estimated to be affected by certain fires in San Diego County. (Thanks to Cheryl Heppner of NVRC for emailing me about KPBS's Google map.)

With over 900,000 people having been evacuated, obviously there are thousands of deaf and hard of hearing people who needed to know how to get access to information like this. Hopefully we can all learn from disasters like this to improve the dissemination of information for other disasters and come up with a systematic way of organizing these information resources so we don't have to spend hours looking all over the Internet for them.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Potential uses of this blog

A major reason why I'm starting this blog is because I'm interested in technology to disseminate information before, during and after disasters. Even this particular blogging utility is useful. Bloggers with cell phones can use to communicate about any disasters that they might happen to get involved with. For example, I can send pictures or email from my cell phone to this blog, and I think it would be great to get more people with camera phones who live in high-risk areas to set up their own blogs for this purpose as well.

Before, during and after Hurricane Katrina (and Rita) impacted the U.S. mainland in 2005, I was very interested in how information was being communicated to the public, even though I wasn't personally affected by the hurricanes. Being severely hard of hearing and single, I can't reliably understand radio communication, and I wanted to understand how I would be able to get important information for my own survival if I happened to be in an area that was struck by a disaster. Even though I have had a web-enabled phone for several years, few emergency management agencies have developed a system for providing text messages about resources and other information for individual residents. Many deaf and hard of hearing people in the areas hit by Katrina and Rita couldn't directly find out about what was going on and what they needed to do even though the technology had long been available to send out information via email to any wireless devices they had.

After Katrina and Rita hit, I found that newspaper web sites in the area often seemed to be better about providing accessible local information about resources than other web sites. It's their job to provide written news, after all, and to do this quickly. One newspaper posted a link to a blogger who provided information about what was available in his local area, like gas stations that still had gasoline and a bar that had the facilities to serve hot food despite the power outage. Television web sites relied too much on videos that weren't captioned, and government web sites weren't flexible enough to provide the variety of details needed.

I think we all need to advocate for emergency management agencies to be MUCH more proactive about planning how information will get out to the public before, during and after disasters. Currently they rely far too much on radio stations to provide information, but there's a lot of problems with using just radio in addition to audio information not being accessible to people with hearing loss. (Radio information is "push" information only whereas people need to be able to "pull" down or at least subscribe to the specific information they need.) I think emergency management agencies need to involve the media and a variety of stakeholders, like organizations of people with disabilities and other special needs, in developing a variety of ways to obtain, coordinate and disseminate reliable information, and in communicating to the public how they can get critical information before, during and after disasters. However, most emergency management systems seem to be so focused on addressing the needs of emergency response personnel that they neglect the information needs of the public.

Let me emphasize: lack of information before, during, and after disasters can kill people. Imagine not knowing where the nearest accessible triage center is when one has a life-threatening medical emergency, you can't get through to anyone by phone, and you can't get to the hospital because the overpass has collapsed but you had no way of learning what roads were closed and thus what roads were still open. Imagine there's an out-of-control fire approaching your home and you didn't hear that the road you usually take to get out is blocked and you get stuck on that road along with thousands of other people who also didn't know the road was closed (true story). Imagine not hearing that you shouldn't drink the water because it may have been contaminated (true story). Imagine all the time wasted by first responders because of the lack of intelligent planning for information dissemination, and the consequent impact on lives and property. Planning for more effective dissemination of information needs to happen now.

If you happen to know of useful information technology for emergencies, please share your knowledge below!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Ducks at King Farm

Happened across these ducks very properly crossing the street in single file at the King Farm development in Rockville, MD. Captured this photo with my Treo 600 and sent the photo to