The Next Call You Get Could Be an Emergency Warning

Boulder, Colo. wildfire
Boulder, Colo. wildfire

There's no shortage of emergencies that people would be better off knowing about as soon as possible. Think of parents wondering if their kids' school will be closed for a snowstorm, or homeowners needing an alert about a spreading wildfire or students potentially exposed to on-campus dangers.

And, indeed, companies are springing up to meet those needs. Emergency notification systems that use voice mail and text messages are already a big business, a communications industry that began about two decades ago and continues to grow.

"It was predominantly spawned out of the public-safety environment for emergency-type communication, outbound, into large communities -- for fire situations, for boiled-water notices, for anything you might imagine [that] might represent a threat to the community," says Tami Timperio, vice president of marketing at California-based PlantCML.

That company was purchased in 2008 by EADS (EADSY), the European conglomerate that owns Airbus, for $350 million. PlantCML also owns the Reverse 911 brand of notification systems, used by authorities in several major cities

Timperio says costs for notification systems depend on a variety of factors, including the size of the community and whether the system is to be run remotely or locally.

A "Loud and Clear" Need

A quick survey of related news stories across the U.S. shows these systems usually cost from the tens of thousands of dollars to well over $100,000 at start-up -- with additional maintenance charges and other fees. But some municipalities are discovering they can get deals from system vendors during the economic downturn on variables such as starting costs, technical support and upgrades.

Even if a system is costly, many towns and cities feel they can't skimp when it comes to emergency-notification services. "We heard, loud and clear, people want a Reverse 911 system," said Newton, Mass., Mayor Setti Warren earlier this year -- after his city was one of several in the Boston area whose drinking water was compromised after a massive water-main break in the region.

Other communities are using grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal sources to get their notification systems up and running, or have come up with creative cost-sharing solutions -- stretching the financial burden across different municipal department budgets.

"Encouraging" Results

And there's evidence to back up claims that these systems are important for public safety. A federal study of the 2007 San Diego wildfires says the local reverse-warning system "was the dominant form of first warning" among those surveyed by the study. It said residents receiving such calls were more likely to evacuate endangered areas and that people with higher education levels and younger people were more likely to receive the reverse emergency-warning calls.

"This is the first investigation of this emerging warning technology," the study concludes, "and the findings should be encouraging to communities who have adopted or are considering adopting the reverse telephone warning technology."

These notification products have also been applied to nonemergency situations. Timperio says her company has a system targeted primarily for companies needing to broadcast messages quickly to a large number of employees. "Some of our customers in the financial world use it for. . .instantaneous communication based on market conditions," she says.

Not Foolproof

But these systems are still evolving with the new communications technologies and aren't completely immune to bugs. One company, Everbridge, came under criticism recently after its emergency-notification system failed to send evacuation messages to some residents near Boulder, Colo., ahead of fast-moving wildfires there (pictured).

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Emergency text messaging is a part of many notification services. "Text messages, short message service [SMS] are able to be handled by these systems en masse, easily, says Timperio. "We have individual customers that send millions of calls, emails, SMS messages per year."

But while many of these services can send you a text message during an emergency, it's still not possible for individuals to text a 911 emergency message to most public-safety organizations.

"Many communities have set up alternative numbers to handle the texting surge," says Timperio, "so there is a large groundswell to add texting capability for 911 calling. But that's significantly challenged by the infrastructure and needs to be addressed at national levels, such as the FCC."