Calling All Citizens

A growing number of municipalities are using 'reverse 911' to alert residents in the event of an emergency.
by | July 2002

It was well after midnight last August 25 when phones started ringing in Downers Grove, Illinois. A recorded message began "This is the DuPage County Sheriff's Office reverse 911 program..." The message went on to ask residents of several neighborhoods to be on the lookout for an elderly man with Parkinson's disease who had wandered off and was missing. Jim Crandell, who had never heard of "reverse 911" until that night, was among the hundreds of citizens who received the call. He got up, looked outside his windows, turned the lights on in his heavily wooded backyard but didn't see anything. So he went back to bed.

The next morning, Crandell walked down to the creek that runs through his backyard to check on the progress of some trees he had planted. As he glanced across the creek, he noticed something in the woods that looked a lot like a heap of trash. Because of the phone call he had received earlier, he checked the mass by the creek and was surprised to discover the missing elderly man, lying face down in the mud, semiconscious.

As a result of that incident, DuPage County officials are convinced that their investment in R911 was worthwhile. "It's a good system," says Jennifer Bostick, communications manager for the DuPage County Sheriff's Office. "If we have a serious situation going on, we can notify the neighborhood that something is wrong long before the first officer can reach the first front door."

DuPage County has been using reverse 911 since 1996. While the concept of calling 911 to report an emergency is familiar to nearly everyone, R911 is a way for police to contact the community. Law enforcement agencies use it to dial citizens en masse with short recorded messages. The calls may alert residents about street closings, missing persons, flood, hurricane or wildfire warnings, escaped convicts or crimes committed in their neighborhoods. Approximately 200 police departments across the nation are using this type of public-alert system; many others are expressing interest.

But reverse 911 also raises a few concerns. Officials worry about their ability to reach everyone in an emergency, and some departments have already encountered citizens who don't want to be bothered by the system. There's also concern that too-frequent calls may wear on people's patience.

Reverse 911 is actually a software program on a desktop computer that's hooked up to multiple phone lines--typically around eight, but in some places as many as 100. When an emergency situation arises, an official can use a mouse to circle areas on a digital map, and with one click, send a recorded voice message to residents in affected areas.

Police departments can tailor reverse 911 to their specific needs. The system can be programmed to call specific lists, such as Neighborhood Watch groups, or send text messages to pagers, cell phones and fax machines. Another feature is the Guardian Program, which the law enforcement agencies in both DuPage County and Tampa offer. Senior citizens in these communities sign up for the program that telephones them every day. When they receive the call, they have to enter a special code. If they fail to do so, the call center will alert a police officer who will call a few more times, and if there isn't a response, will then go out to the residence. "We have a lot of people hooked up to it," Bostick says. "It lets the police and community be more directly involved with each other."

Of course, R911's capabilities vary widely, depending on what features each department selects and how much it's willing to pay. The "Communicator" system in Austin, Texas, can send a 30-second emergency alert through 48 phone lines to 500 phone numbers in about five minutes, delivering the message in English and Spanish.

A handful of private companies provide the service. Sigma Micro Communications Inc., developers of the brand-name Reverse 911 and the company that makes DuPage County's system, originally created the dialing system in 1990 as a way for chemical companies to warn all the homes around a plant within minutes of a hazardous spill. The purpose of the system widened a decade ago, when Maryville, Indiana, started to use it for its public agencies. After that, the company began redesigning and marketing it to police departments.

The overall cost of a reverse 911 system varies depending on what features a department selects. Carmel, Indiana, for example, spent about $29,000 to buy and install the hardware and software. After that, the city will pay $13,700 annually. DuPage County also spent around $30,000 to install the equipment in 1996, and has since been spending around $11,000 annually. But a system can also cost as much as $69,000, which is what Austin paid to install its system this April. The city estimates it will cost about $16,000 annually.

Although R911 systems are generally popular and reliable, occasionally a glitch will make headlines. One such "bug" occurred in 1998, when several hundred residents were awakened in the middle of the night in Greenburgh, New York. A police officer there forgot to turn off the system, and the town supervisor's recorded message could be heard all night long reminding residents of a change in the trash pick-up schedule.

More serious concerns about the effectiveness of such systems revolve around unlisted numbers, residents' lack of interest in receiving calls and the potential for a backlash if they begin to resent their phones ringing at all hours.

In Tampa, Sigma Micro is contracted to provide the city with an updated list of phone numbers annually. The phone companies that provide these lists won't sell the vendor unlisted numbers because they are protecting their customers' privacy. What concerns Tampa officials, and other cities using R911, is that residents with unlisted numbers might never get a call warning them about hurricane evacuations--or a gasoline tanker that has overturned on a nearby highway. Officials estimate that 30 to 40 percent of Tampa residents have private lines or unlisted numbers. "People's biggest concern is that this list is going to be farmed out to telemarketers," says Joe Durkin, a Tampa police spokesman. "It just won't. It is not the police department's job to make money. We only use the numbers to inform residents of spills, missing children and even to alert them that a sexual predator has moved into the area because that's Florida law."

Another problem that officials have to contend with is the fact that many people don't answer their phones, or use privacy lines instead. There are also those who don't have a phone line because they can't afford it, or are among the growing number of people using only cell phones.

Austin was able to get around unlisted phone numbers and apathetic residents altogether. The city went before the state Commission on Emergency Communications and was granted permission to use its 911 database. Updated daily, the database is the most accurate listing of phone numbers out there. Austin started using an emergency- notification system in April. It purchased the system primarily because Austin has a number of low-lying areas that are often in danger of flooding. "But most of all," says Ed Harris Jr., Austin's emergency communications director, "after September 11, we needed a more effective way of calling people and getting them the information they need in case of such an emergency."

Another challenge police departments face is ensuring they don't overuse the system. "One of the things we are very cautious of is not using the system too frivolously," Durkin says.

Currently, both Tampa and DuPage County have strict rules only to use it between 8:30 a.m. and 9 p.m. However, depending on the circumstances, officials can decide to use the system outside the normal hours. In the case of the Parkinson's patient, DuPage County made an exception. The sheriff's office there estimates that it uses reverse 911 once or twice a week for crime alerts.

"In this age of telemarketing, many people already are disturbed about unwanted phone calls," Northwestern University criminologist Wesley Skogan told the Chicago Tribune. "You worry about pressure to expand the use of this thing. First you start making announcements about neighborhood events.... Before you know it, it's announcements that the Suburban O'Hare Commission is going to hold a meeting."

Nevertheless, since September 11, many more police departments have expressed interest in reverse 911. "We have had a fivefold increase in unsolicited phone calls about the product," says Kevin McCarthy, vice president of Sigma Micro's Reverse 911. One such municipality is Chicago, which already has a 911 center that handles nearly 5 million calls each year. Larry Langford, public information officer for the Chicago police department, says the city is currently in negotiation with a vendor to purchase a system. Officials there had been considering a system for about a year, but the terrorist attacks spurred them into action. "The track was laid," Langford says. "But that track was more aggressively pursued after September 11."

Arlington County, Virginia, which has had the system since 1995, activated it when the Pentagon was hit. Using address files they had created, they paged off-duty officers, telling them to check in. "We needed to get a handle on the situation," says Arlington County Detective Sandra Barksdale. "That way we could stagger the officers coming in." The department further used the system to give its personnel the best route of traffic to the scene since so many roads had been closed.

Despite the success of the system so far, and its potential to save lives, no one underestimates the need to use reverse 911 in conjunction with good, old-fashioned public-alert systems such as warning sirens and battery-operated radios. While batteries back up R911 computers, the system can't overcome downed phone lines. "Officers still need to go door to door in emergencies, and we still need to use the media to get information out," Durkin says. "But that takes a lot of time, and the system lets us get to thousands in minutes."