Oregon | Technology

Few Receiving Emergency Notifications On Cell Phones

OPB | June 30, 2011 8:10 a.m. | Updated: Dec. 18, 2013 1:31 p.m. | Portland, OR

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Emergency authorities around Oregon have a new warning tool.

Over the last few months, they’ve been able to send out emergency phone alerts to residents about all kinds of dangers, from a tsunami along the coast to a chemical release.

The trouble is, more and more people are ditching their home phones for cell phones. And cell phones don’t automatically get automated phone alerts.

Carmen Merlo demonstrates the automated emergency alert system.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Cities are contracting with companies that can send calls out to cell phones. But people have to sign up for the service, and they’re not doing so in great numbers.

People living along Oregon’s coast heard a loud warning broadcast through the public address system earlier this year when the earthquake off Japan threatened a tsunami.

Public address systems worked well in towns.

But in the countryside, authorities used automated phone alert system calls.

It’s hard to know how successful those calls were. But some evacuees that morning said they relied on old-fashioned phone trees and word of mouth — like Seaside resident, Angie Barnett.

Angie Barnett: “It started out with someone coming to my window and telling me we needed to go for the hills basically.”
Kristian Foden-Vencil: “Was that police officers?”
Angie Barnett: “No it was a friend of ours.”

The wireless telecommunications industry estimates that more than a quarter of American households don’t have land lines now. That means they don’t have a home phone for emergency officials to call.

And despite some of the amazing things cell phones can do nowadays, they don’t automatically receive automated phone alerts.

But Lisa Turley of the Bureau of Emergency Communications for Multnomah County, says it is possible to get your cell phone to receive automated emergency alerts.

“There’s a website publicalerts.org and if you go to that, there is a place where you can sign up for emergency notification for your cell phone and other devices.”

Each jurisdiction has to pay for the service. But it’s free for users and it’s easy to sign up.

The trouble is, relatively few people are doing it.

Carmen Merlo of the Portland Office of Emergency Management says only 6,000 cell phones are registered for the automated phone alert system in the city.

There are 130,000 land lines.

“We know that we are not reaching a large number of people. And so it’s no wonder that when events happen and we do use the system, people still say: ‘Well, I didn’t get a phone call.’ And it’s because we either don’t have their number because it’s either unpublished or they don’t have a land line and only have a cell phone and so we really do need to encourage people to sign-up for the system,” Merlo said.

Turley says the county hasn’t done any advertising to get the word out. That’s mainly because officials are still figuring out how to make the automated phone alert system work.

“This is really technology that’s taking off right now. Our system, we’ve only had it now, what, six months basically. And we’ve had two launches, one that we’ve needed to practice on. And the other one that was pretty successful.”

The first ‘launch,’ or use of the system, involved the release of a toxic chemical from a factory right on the border of Multnomah and Clackamas counties.

Clackamas used its automated phone alert system. Multnomah County didn’t. Turley says they had problems finding the right person to get everything going.

By the way, Oregonians are charged 75 cents a month for 911 service on their cell phones. That money goes to the state to help pay for all these new systems. But some states are raiding that money. Oregon took $3.5 million from its 911 fund in 2009. It was used to balance the general fund.

Anyway, cell phone technology is changing very fast.

In 2006, Congress mandated several new kinds of warning systems. Emergency manager, Carmen Merlo, says one will be rolled out in New York and Washington D.C. later this year.

“This is a system that requires no signing up. This would be where the cell towers would ping all phones within range of that cell tower to notify the public of whatever emergency event, whether it was a bombing, a flooding, a tornado, whatever that might be,” she said.

It should also broadcast AMBER alerts - for missing children - and allow the president to send an emergency message.

It’s scheduled to go nationwide next Spring.

If you live in the Portland metropolitan area and you want your mobile device to receive automated phone alerts, the website to register is www.publicalerts.org. Some counties have not signed up for the service.

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