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.