Reverse 911 aids emergency victims
When disasters occur, public safety officials usually are faced with a barrage of phone calls from residents and media asking for details about the situation. Many callers use 911, overloading operators with non-emergency problems.
In Lane County, Ore., residents now are receiving calls directly from public safety officials when an emergency occurs. The Lane County Community Emergency Notification System (CENS) works like 911 in reverse, according to Galen Howard, 911 coordinator for the Lane Council of Governments (LCOG).
When confronted with an emergency, such as a flood, CENS automatically calls affected residents, who hear a 30-second recording that explains the situation and gives instructions. The message is recorded by a county official, such as the police chief, who may advise residents simply to turn to the local news broadcasts for more details or direct them to safety. CENS usually directs residents not to dial 911.
For example, in the event of a hazardous materials spill, officials would likely direct affected residents to stay indoors, close windows and wait for further instructions, Howard explains. CENS also may make a follow-up call to affected residents to give an “all-clear” signal.
“It’s very versatile,” Howard says. “We can use it how we see fit.” The system, developed by Denver-based U.S. West, was created in response to a recent flood in the county. The flood occurred overnight, when most residents were not watching television, and, thus, were unaware of the emergency. That created concern for local officials, Howard says.
Lane County implemented CENS for about $22,000, with annual operating and maintenance fees of about $50,000. To run a broadcast notification, the fee is 20 cents per call.
The system requires county officials to enter security codes and call boundaries before initiating the broadcast call so that only affected residents are notified. It can make up to 2,000 calls per minute, and it will continue to call residences that do not answer their phones. Additionally, the message can be delivered to answering machines.
In October, Lane County conducted a simulated emergency test of CENS that targeted 1,646 residences, businesses and other agencies spread over 100 square miles. Nearly 60 percent of the calls were completed in fewer than three minutes. As part of the message, residents were asked to call a toll-free number to provide feedback about the system for the county.
Following an actual emergency call event, the county can review summary reports that list the date and time of each CENS call, the number of call attempts and the call outcomes so that officials can determine if all affected parties were notified of the emergency.
CENS was funded by a public-private partnership between the county and its three municipalities — Eugene, Florence and Springfield — and local corporations including Georgia Pacific, Borden Chemical and the Metropolitan Wastewater Management Commission. Funds have been secured for the first three years of operations; the county is looking for additional resources for future financial support.