Wildfires Gave Reverse 911 Its First Test The Reverse 911 communication system was given the lion's share of credit for successful and fatality free evacuations from San Diego County's wildfires a month ago. But the program may not have been as effective as previously thought.
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Wildfires Gave Reverse 911 Its First Test

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Wildfires Gave Reverse 911 Its First Test

Wildfires Gave Reverse 911 Its First Test

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It was another kind of communication software that made last month's mass evacuations possible in Southern California. Hundreds of thousands of people left their homes under threat of advancing wildfires. And emergency officials in San Diego County say that that kind of movement would have been impossible without a mass notification system known as Reverse 911, that's when 911 calls you. Dangerous fire weather is returning to California this weekend, and that system could be useful again.

From member station KPBS, Andrew Phelps reports.

ANDREW PHELPS: As flames race toward the Pacific Coast, more than half a million people got a phone call like this one.

Unidentified Man: This is an urgent message from the San Diego Police Department. A mandatory evacuation is in order for your area. Evacuate immediately to Qualcomm Stadium. Stay tuned to radio and TV news stations.

PHELPS: And so began one of the largest peace-time evacuation in U.S. history. Ron Lane is head of emergency services for San Diego County. He says it was all possible because of a computer system called Reverse 911.

Mr. RON LANE (Director, San Diego County Office of Emergency Services): I don't know how we could have possibly get 515,000 people evacuated safely without any - not one citizen, despite the six very dangerous fires that caught, you know, fire get overrun by the fire in their evacuation.

PHELPS: For people without landlines, a different system made calls to cell phones. But for that to work, you have to register a cell phone number in advance.

Mr. LANE: Obviously, not everybody is in the system. We're relying on the data that we get from the telephone company. We did get a few people that called us and said, you know, my neighbors got a phone call and I didn't.

PHELPS: Like my colleague, Joanne Faryon, who decided to leave when the smoke got thick.

JOANNE FARYON: And when I did go outside to put a bag in my car, I noticed that all my neighbors were packing down the street. So I know my neighborhood was under evacuation. I mean, it had all the signs. And I never got a call. I'm not really sure why.

PHELPS: Sheriff's deputies eventually arrived on Joanne's block with megaphones, pounding on doors the old fashioned way. Mass notification is criticized in both directions. A handful of people didn't get calls, but should have. Others were evacuated who didn't need to. Greg McClurall(ph) was staying with friends in the wealthy coastal town of Del Mar, which was untouched by flames. Even so, they did get the call.

Mr. GREG McCLURALL (Del Mar Resident): So my wife freaked out and we left Del Mar, which is, like, you know, 100 yards from the ocean. In Del Mar's case, they evacuated the entire zip code or they said that. It's sort of, like, you know, it's a large net that catches everything.

PHELPS: The net was cast wide this year because of what happened four years ago. Fifteen people died in the chaos of the Cedar fire. A blue ribbon panel concluded that better communication could have saved lives. And so Reverse 911 was born. The system is widely praised for making this year's evacuation so orderly. But officials are concerned about 911 calls like this one, which Reverse 911 was supposed to prevent.

(Soundbite from 911 call)

Unidentified Woman #1: Are you talking outside your house?

Unidentified Woman #2: No, not yet. I'm trying to pack to leave.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible) how old are you?

Unidentified Woman #2: 93.

Unidentified Woman #1: Okay. Are you there by yourself?

Unidentified Woman #2: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #1: Okay. Is your house on fire?

Unidentified Woman #2: Not my house, but (unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman #1: Is it close?

Unidentified Woman #2: Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Woman #1: Okay, stay with me.

PHELPS: One of the dispatchers who were at the fires is Christine Myer(ph). Compared to 2003, she says this year was exceptionally smooth.

Ms. CHRISTINE MYER (911 Dispatcher): I think the 2003 fires were a shock, were such a shock to everybody. And those were the fires where people were calling, do I need to get out, do I - you know. And that's when Reverse 911 was put into place because of that. That saved a lot.

PHELPS: Another spinoff was 211, a non-emergency hotline with shelter information and road closures. Myer is convinced that reverse 911, together with 211, cut back her call load. She may be right. In the first 12 hours of the Cedar fire, the San Diego Fire Department received 3,200 emergency calls. In the first 12 hours of this year's Witch fire, there were less than half that many.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Phelps in San Diego.

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