Thursday, June 19, 2008

Is the County's Emergency Management Notification System Effective?

After attending Tuesday’s briefing from the Department of Homeland Security and following the ensuing press coverage about the recent WSSC water main break, I have serious concerns about the effectiveness of the County’s Emergency Notification System. I am especially troubled that information was not posted on the county’s website in a timely manner and that an electronic alert was not sent out. I believe that one of the most important responsibilities of local government is to ensure that our residents receive accurate, clear and timely information, especially during emergencies. It is essential that the public has confidence in our emergency management procedures.

That’s why I have requested that the newly reconstituted Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security brief the Council’s Public Safety Committee. It should be asked to explain its approach to keeping the community informed during emergencies, to describe its procedures for doing so, and to clarify whose responsibility it is to see that the correct information is sent out. It should also detail what outreach it will do before a crisis occurs so that residents know where and how to obtain critical information.

How do you get information about emergencies? Do you use Alert Montgomery? What questions do you think should be addressed in the Public Safety Committee briefing?


Thomas Hardman said...

Ms Floreen,

As you may recall, I run e-mail lists for the Bel-Pre Hewitt "C-SAFE" group, a descendant of the HotSpots and Mid-County Neighborhood Initiative programs. I also was the website host and administrator for the Aspen Hill Civic Association, Inc.

When the Beltway Snipers cut loose in Aspen Hill, I used the mailing-list software meant to distribute AHCA newsletters to our members, to notify of an emergency. Interestingly enough, I was castigated somewhat for having sent out such a message without permission from our board of directors, which couldn't be got at such short notice nor in a timely manner. Perhaps I saved some lives; in any case nearly 300 people were notified by e-mail that there were killers rampaging around the neighborhood and they should take steps and tune to the radio.

Comparably, in the recent water supply emergency, I sent mail to a mailing list I operate which serves managers of large residential properties such as apartments/condos in the Aspen Hill area.

In neither case, in my humble opinion, did the County act in a timely way.

A variety of solutions exist on the market, such as the use of "Asterisk" software to dial both VoIP and dial-up network numbers and deliver voice messages. This is already one of the premiere software packages for delivering "phone spam" or "robo calls". Asterisk is free software running on most UNIX-like operating systems. A special card is required but they are not prohibitively expensive.

There is also 'qpage' or "Q Page", which has long been used in the computer network monitoring community. It can take text input generated by automatic systems, and send that text out to alphanumeric pagers. In the modern day of AOL Instant Messenger ("IM") or texting, no doubt comparable software packages are available.

Between variants on Asterisk, QPage, automated generation of IM or text messages as well as mailing lists, you should be able to reach everyone who has signed up to such a service by supplying you with their user address. For those who are likely to have telephones but no other technical communications, Asterisk and "robo call" should provide effective notification.

Another approach I took to notifying people of the water main break was to stand at a fairly busy intersection with a white-board sign reading "Boil Water Alert! Tune to WMAL". Perhaps it might be useful to add to any robo-call alerts and advisory: "check to make sure your neighbors know about this".

Feel free to get in touch with me or visit my blog to leave a message or comment. I hope these remarks here have been useful.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Floreen:

The County's response to the water crises was negligent and put the health of the County's residents at risk. It is that simple.

The County Council is more concerned with performing arts centers, transfat, and carbon foot prints than protecting the County's residents.

I am new to the County and can assure you that the incompetence of this county's leadership (including the Council) is hard to comprehend.

I just hope that someday the voters of this county realize this and vote for new leadership.