Alert! Alert!

Call it the Red Scare. Earlier this summer, on a quiet Friday afternoon, the BlackBerrys and cell phones of some 25,000 residents of Arlington County, Virginia,...
by | September 30, 2008

Call it the Red Scare. Earlier this summer, on a quiet Friday afternoon, the BlackBerrys and cell phones of some 25,000 residents of Arlington County, Virginia, chirped, beeped, vibrated and buzzed. They were subscribers to "Arlington Alert," the county's emergency mass-notification system. The following warning came in:


>Subject: Rapid Fox

Thirteen minutes later, Arlington texted again -- with a crucial spelling fix. ("Subject: Title Correction: Rabid Fox Captured.") So the fox wasn't quick. But the fox alert was no fluke. In the following weeks, subscribers were alerted to an earthquake in Annandale (1.8 on the Richter scale); a school lockdown ("due to police activity in the area. All students are safe, just a precaution"); an airline passenger who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis ("flew on Air France #385 from Atlanta to Paris"); and a Comcast cable outage.

Arlington isn't the only alert-happy local government. Jurisdictions from Seminole County, Florida, to Marin County, California, also have made big investments in mass-notification systems. Their capabilities are impressive. From her computer in Arlington's office of emergency management, deputy coordinator Debbie Powers can simultaneously e-mail, text, page, fax and phone Arlington County residents, while also broadcasting alerts to AM and FM radio, XM satellite radio, television outlets and an outdoor public-address system known simply as "the giant voice."

But mass-notification systems also can pose problems. Irritated residents who feel like their local government is spamming them may be tempted to unsubscribe. And that would only make a true emergency more dangerous.

I know how the text-wary masses feel. After spending two hours one morning stuck in the Washington, D.C., subway, I signed up for D.C.'s alerts, as well as Arlington's. I envisioned that my relationship with local emergency managers would be professional -- more LinkedIn than MySpace. But I quickly learned that D.C. and Arlington had different ideas: They were downright chatty. It wasn't unusual to receive several text messages a day, many of them as inscrutable as any tapped by a teenager. One, of interest in my neighborhood, was particularly enigmatic.


>Subject: Message from Alert DC

>The National Park Service closed Fort Reno Park today due to environmental concerns. There are no immediate concerns for the community.

All right then! (One minute later, D.C. texted again to clarify that the soil had high arsenic levels but that residents would be fine as long as we did not eat it.)

Occasional cryptic messages aren't the real problem. Irrelevant messages are. Unfortunately, the way localities pay for mass-notification systems encourages them to click "send." This spring, for instance, Philadelphia and five surrounding counties joined up to launch The upfront cost of the new system was $900,000. The cost of sending an alert is zero. Not surprisingly, Philadelphia was soon texting subscribers to give them a heads-up on low-flying aircraft (aerial mosquito spraying) and gunfire on Market Street (a movie shoot).

So far, the public isn't complaining too loudly. But David Burns, campus emergency manager at UCLA, warns that mission creep with alert systems can lead to a backlash. "Basically you become a spammer the moment you deviate from your texting mission statement," says Burns. "If you have presented your texting as an emergency notification system, you need to keep on that path."

Burns also cautions against an over-reliance on text messages. Since its rollout in 2007, the university has lobbied students to register their cell phones with Bruin Alert. So far, only 35 percent have.

Even teenagers have their limits when it comes to texting.


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