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S. California wildfires resources
safeandwell.org, dial 211

 4:43 pm on Oct 22, 2007 (gmt 0)

If appropriate (news and community sites in the affected areas), you might want to publicize these resources, which are both relatively new and not well-known to the public.

The American Red Cross has just activated registration services on safeandwell.org. The site allows individuals to list themselves as "safe and well" and others to search for listings.

For those not in immediate danger, the "211" system is being used to distribute evacuation information. This is a very new service that the public is not yet well-aware of. It's important to use this service for information requests, to keep the 911 system clear for genuine emergencies.

"Reverse 911" is being used very effectively to notify people of evacuations. San Diego has a "reverse 911" service that autodials landlines (unfortunately, not cell) to issue notices in an emergency.

Apx. 100 square miles of San Diego County are now under mandatory evacuation - the largest evacuation in San Diego history.

The San Diego Union-Tribune website is down, and has been for some time, making information that much more scare. (Neither the Union-Tribune nor their co-location provider are in an affected area, AFAIK.)



 5:23 pm on Oct 22, 2007 (gmt 0)

To give some idea of the magnitude of evacuations, 120,000 reverse-911 calls were made overnight (an estimated 250,000 persons under mandatory evacuation), informing households that they are required to evacuate. One bright technological point. (San Diego's reverse-911 system experienced initial capacity problems when it was first installed.)

Unfortunately, both 911 and 211 are jammed. Additional operators are being brought in from outside of the area.

It is the driest season in S. California in 130 years.

If people would like to discuss the fires, I'd suggest a post in "foo". Let's focus this post on the technology of disaster preparedness and relief, and how webmasters can help to facilitate them.

What new technologies are in use in your area, have they been tested by real emergencies, and how effective have they been?


 11:31 pm on Oct 22, 2007 (gmt 0)

A few thoughts:

- Reverse-911 currently works only for landlines. (No way to "register" a cell phone with the system.) At the same time, there is a trend toward dropping landlines altogether.

- People at work often don't have access to radio/TV, but do have access to the web

- Traditional local media outlets can fail in an emergency

- The above suggests that your website may be more important than you think in an emergency

- If your site is locally-oriented, is it also physically located in the same area? If yours might become a critical information resource, do you have a backup site in a different geographical area? Do you have adequate capacity to handle the load of emergency traffic? (The failure of the San Diego Union-Tribine website this morning prompts this question - it appears they didn't have adequate capacity. And their co-location facility is local.)

- Do you have obsolete emergency-related links or information on your site? There was some frustration about this expressed on the forums on the Union-Tribune site today (once they got back up). (Not regarding the newspaper site itself - but other emergency-related sites. For example, one site still had information only on fires from last year.)

- Can anyone recommend widgets that can be placed on the home page for up-to-date emergency information? We all know about the widget for Amber Alerts. (Right?) But what about widespread emergencies? Are there widgets for general disasters, earthquake, fire, etc.?


 11:46 pm on Oct 22, 2007 (gmt 0)

As homes become more wired, I can see a system in the future that would take advantage of that for emergency notifications. The main problem with the current Emergency Broadcast System is that it is passive- if someone doesn't have their radio or TV on, they're not going to get the message. But it would be great to have a system that could be "woken up" from a sleeping state by a central system to automatically alert people to emerencies.

Of course, there are some obvious downsides that need to be addressed and fixed:
1) Potential for being hacked and people sending false emergencies.
2) People still turning it off (the way they remove the batteries or disengage faulty smoke detectors instead of fixing them)
3) The last few non-wired holdouts who would be off the grid
4) Periodic testing of the system may cause some people to believe there is an actual emergency
5) System not working due to electricity or phone/network lines being down

Hmmm, I thought this was actually a pretty good idea until I started thinking about the downsides...

Question about the reverse-911: why can't you register a cell phone? To me, that seems like the best solution to get around most of the downsides I mentioned, at least as a temporary fix until a better system comes along.

[edited by: LifeinAsia at 11:49 pm (utc) on Oct. 22, 2007]


 5:20 am on Oct 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

Lack of peak capacity is a serious issue.

We are relying more and more on the Internet for information - yet key web sites have failed in this particular disaster.

I decided to look at the State of California OES (Office of Emergency Services) website, to see if there is some RSS feed, etc. available.

That was 5 minutes ago. Their home page is still loading.

(Ah - finally loaded - decided it was best to abandon my search and let others use the site to get emergency information...)

Companies such as Amazon - with the EC2 cloud service - could really help - and gain publicity - by making peak capacity available for emergency-services websites.

And free services are available to handle extraordinary peak loads (with caching). Alert slashdot users often use these services to ease the load of a "slashdotting". Certainly, government and emergency-services websites could use these, as well. They just need a little education.

I fear that the whole "just in time" and "just enough capacity" mentality that started with the auto industry has spread way too far in our society. A small example: the UCSD (University of California - San Diego) burn center is full - they have 18 beds. It's the only burn center in San Diego County.

The reverse-911 system seems to be the technology star in this disaster. There have been additional evacuations during the day. I'm guessing that a total of 500,000 people in San Diego will have been successfully evacuated by the time it is over. (Confirmed: OES just announced in a press conference, there have been a total of 260,000 households notified.)

Downside: I was with a friend today who was talking to a friend of his in one of the affected areas. I'd heard on the radio that the area was being evacuated. He was staying put. Why? "I haven't gotten the reverse-911 call yet". It works so damned good that perhaps people are over-confident in it.

Question: as a matter of public policy, should we be allowing phone companies to clip the copper lines when they install FIOS (fiber into the home) service, as AT&T has been doing? Fibre and cable services have maybe a few hours of battery capacity. And the battery backup has multiple potential points of failure - every node from source to destination has to work. (The legacy copper infrastructure is powered from the central offices. The COs have a few hours battery capacity, and then switch to backup generators.)

Some cable systems in San Diego are out, because of routine outages, and employees being told to stay home. Is it premature to abandon copper wires, which have worked extraordinarily well?

It's a truism that every technology peaks in usefulness just before it becomes obsolete. I ain't giving up my obsolete copper wires just yet...


 6:23 am on Oct 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

The main problem with the current Emergency Broadcast System is that it is passive- if someone doesn't have their radio or TV on, they're not going to get the message. But it would be great to have a system that could be "woken up" from a sleeping state by a central system to automatically alert people to emerencies.

The old, previously single-use, weather radios have come a l-o-n-g way towards addressing these issues.

Public Alert Devices and Emergency Alert Devices (EAS), as they are now known, all have a silent stand-by mode that automatically turns on the audio when an alert warning is received. (Options include audible & visual alert when activated and an optional 100 decibel alarm.)

The units are very small, easily "fit-in" at both home and work, operate on AC and battery. There are several portable units -- about the size of a small cell phone, with a purchase price of $25 - $40 USD.

(The Public Alert Standard (CEA-2009) was developed by the Consumer Electronics Association in conjunction with the National Weather Service. Devices carrying the Public Alert logo meet certain technical standards and include standard features.)

Special Needs accessories include bed shakers, strobe lights. wireless transmitters, external antennas, and audio cables.

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) provides the only network of national and local government broadcasts for messages affecting public health and safety. Weather radios with SAME technology will receive these broadcasts automatically. EAS broadcasts may include warnings about weather and technological emergencies, including tornadoes and earthquakes; toxic chemical spills; radiation emergencies; explosions and fires; and other conditions that require immediate public notification.

Radios with S.A.M.E. (Specific Area Message Encoding) allow users to adjust their reception and identify information for specific counties of interest and concern, rather than for an entire regional broadcast area.

Radio owners can easily program a SAME-equipped receiver with a six-digit code for a specific county location. This eliminates the numerous "false alarms" for weather alerts that may apply to an area 40 or 50 miles distant. Multiple county codes can be programmed into many radios to permit storing home and business locations, travel/vacation destinations, etc.

The following statements, alerts and warnings are currently available with NOAA All Hazard Weather Radios.

# 911 Telephone Outage
# Avalanche
# Biological
# Hazard
# Boil Water Warning
# Blizzard
# Child Abduction
# Civil Danger
# Civil Emergency
# Coastal Flood
# Chemical Hazard
# Dam Watch
# Dam Break
# Contagious Disease
# Dust Storm
# Emergency Action
# Earthquake
# Immediate Evacuation
# Evacuation Watch
# Food Contamination
# Flash Flood
# Flash Flood Watch
# Flood Watch
# Fire Warning
# Flash Freeze
# Freeze Warning
# Hurricane
# Hazardous Materials
# Hurricane
# High Wind
# Iceberg
# Industrial Fire
# Local Area Emergency
# Law Enforcement Warning
# Land Slide
# Nuclear Power Plant
# Power Outage
# Radiological Hazard
# Special Marine Warning
# Special Weather Statement
# Shelter in Place Warning
# Severe Thunderstorm
# Severe Weather
# Statement
# Tornado Watch
# Tornado
# Tropical
# Tsunami
# Volcano
# Wild Fire
# Winter Storm Warning

[This information was compiled from material at <snip> ]

Could there be a convergence in the future of GPS phones and EAS alerts ...?

[edited by: Laker at 6:41 am (utc) on Oct. 23, 2007]

[edited by: lawman at 10:55 am (utc) on Oct. 23, 2007]
[edit reason] Commercial Links Not Allowed [/edit]


 3:44 pm on Oct 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

I can think of one reason for not implementing reverse-911 registration for cell phones: it might encourage people to enter an evacuation area. (For example, if they are at work, they might want to return home and retrieve things.)

Of course, people can use call-forwarding. But that's hardly a feature universally subscribed-to.

Perhaps in an emergency, the phone company should enable call-forwarding for all lines in the affected areas. I can see several benefits to this.

Web sites related to the San Diego fire that suffered severe capacity problems to the level of "severe slashdotting" (sites essentially unavailable):

San Diego Union-Tribune
California Office of Emergency Services
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
San Diego County Emergency

The official City of San Diego website seems to be handling capacity fine - but it links to an overloaded "211"-related site (home page currently doesn't load) for official fire-related information. At least the actual "211" phone service has somewhat caught-up, with waits estimated at 3 minutes.

It seems to me that any of the largest web sites (Google, Yahoo, etc.) could easily handle this capacity, as they are huge and have the infrastructure to distribute load geographically. It would be particularly useful to divert out-of-area traffic (people seeking information on friends and relatives, and the merely curious) to out-of-area servers.

It would be great PR and public service for somebody to step-in and offer to provide emergency services websites with the needed peak capacity.

At the same time, those in charge of these types of websites should take a serious look at whether they have any capability to serve the public in an actual emergency. It seems they don't. Do their websites offer anything more than public education in advance of an emergency? Does their very existence give a dangerous sense of security?

One idea would be for them to join together and work with companies like Akamai to provide an offloading network specifically for use by public-safety related websites.

BTW, several TV and other transmitters in San Diego apparently were lost overnight when the fire crested Mt. San Miguel, where many of them are located - a remote camera's lens at one of the transmitter locations visibly cracked before it stopped operating.

(Fortunately, due to the terrain (horrible over-the-air reception) most people in the area have cable, and many of the TV stations have multiple transmitter locations.

That much more reason to develop a robust emergency services infrastructure on the Internet. It seems we currently don't have one, which is a shame, as it is an easily-solved problem.

People HAVE been able to get information on the Internet due to the diversity of sites - and 802.11 networks are practically universal in shelters. It's just the *official* sites that seem to have a problem, and I imagine a lot of time is wasted trying to figure out what sites are working and have accurate and up-to-date information.


 4:56 pm on Oct 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

I can think of one reason for not implementing reverse-911 registration for cell phones: it might encourage people to enter an evacuation area. (For example, if they are at work, they might want to return home and retrieve things.)

Plus it would be a strain on the wirless network which does not have the capacity limit as landlines do. Most of the calls would not go though and would strain emergency services that need the wireless network to communicate. Yes, emergency service communications are on a higher priority but if a tower goes down due to high capacty (which was seen during 9-11 in NYC, NJ, and CT) then no emergency calls can be made.

Plus, the more usage, the smaller the coverage area of the tower will be (especailly with digital networks) so some emergency workers copuld be "pushed" out of the service area.

An effective way to communicate would be though text messages. They're short and don't hog up as much bandwidth as a call does (most text messaging uses a different part of the spectrum than voice calls do). I doubt many emergency workers are texting at times like this. ;)

Another effective way to communicate would be though the top web sites traffic wise,

News sites (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News etc..)
Merchant sites (Amazon.com, Buy.com, Overstock.com)
EBay and AOL
I'm sure if each of these sites had a banner about the disaster most of the US-based web traffic would be able to see it (who here doesn't go a day without going to one of these sites?)
Plus ISPs can push emails to their clients to communicate these messages.

Here in south Florida in preperations to hurricanes our news media (radio and TV) go into "Hurricane Mode" which is non-stop hurricane coverage, more intense as the storm comes and stays up after the storm (as we saw w/ Charlie, Frances, Jeanne, and Wilma). Radio stations keep this up to communicate to the people, locations of FEMA assisstance, disaster relieft centers, insurance claim senters, meals, stores (needed, grocerey stores, Home Depot etc..) that are open, gas stations that are open.

In New Orleans post Katrina local companies set up WiFi hot spots all over to help out with communications, that is a great and inexpensive way to get the infrastructure back up (for a start).


 5:26 pm on Oct 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

Given a bit of thought, the logical way to handle reverse-911 for cell phones is the same way it is done using landlines - dial (or text message) all the phones in a given area. (As opposed to having people "register" their cell phones.)

It's a bit of a different problem - as landlines have static locations. But it seems the technology for contacting all the active phones within a given cell should be quite doable, given cooperation by the phone companies.

Local media is getting the word out for people to use text messaging rather than placing cell calls.

BTW, it actually does use the same spectrum as voice calls - carried over the same digital over-air transport mechanism. But a text message is a tiny blip of airtime.


 5:59 pm on Oct 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

Here's a great Google map put together by San Diego public radio/TV station KPBS (currently off the air, having presumably lost their broadcast tower, but feeding cable systems and feeding FM audio on an auxiliary FM radio transmitter/frequency):


Google maps are a great way to communicate this kind of information effectively, as it shows the information graphically, and Google has the peak capacity to deal with the traffic. It would be good to see the "official" sources making use of them.

The URLs are a bitch, though. Google could easily provide a short URL service to emergency agencies to solve that problem.

One of the complaints aired again and again has been lack of detailed information on evacuation areas and routes. The short EAS messages just don't cut it, and TV/radio news has been confusing with a lot of hand-waving and pointing at Thomas Bros. maps. Here's a wonderfully-detailed map with great detail on each clickable "point of interest".

[edited by: jtara at 6:09 pm (utc) on Oct. 23, 2007]


 6:03 pm on Oct 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

BTW, it actually does use the same spectrum as voice calls - carried over the same digital over-air transport mechanism. But a text message is a tiny blip of airtime.

I just checked with some of the RF engineers and you are right (but for the wrong reason). :)

Text messages (at least for the technologies that my company currently uses) use the same part of the spectrum that voice calls do but are at the lowest priority. They are the first thing to get knocked off the network when it gets busy. The good news is that most services will attempt to re-send text messages for a whilebefore informing the user it was unsuccessful so it is possible that they are queued until a space opens up for a few hundred or a few thousand to run though the opening before it is closed back up.

I guess I was thinking of a (not so) older technology, short messaging which was, in a very basic way, an email which was sent over the data part of the spectrum.


 9:19 pm on Oct 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

>The old, previously single-use, weather radios have come a l-o-n-g way towards addressing these issues.

Laker, you are dead on. As I was loading up the cars to leave I grabbed mine, but put it back because it isn't used.

It would be a huge help, and even more of a comfort, since not knowing what is happening is difficult to deal with. There are a few good blogs, but accuracy is questionable. A central staging point for information dissemination and broadcast on a radio like that should be in place. Maybe next disaster.


 10:55 pm on Oct 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

It turns out that there *is* a registration service for reverse-911, to allow those with cell phones, VOIP, or unlisted/non-published numbers to get notification. (The latter is probably the reason why some people have reported that they never received the call.)

Only problem is, it's a secret - at least in the present situation.

You can find it with a Google search (along with those for many other cities). Media had been reporting that those who could only be contacted by cell phone were out of luck.

A TV station reported today that there is a registration site, and promised to "get back with you on that, once we know the URL."

Of course, the proper time to publicize this was before the disaster.

Again, though, the system has worked remarkably well. 500,000 people evacuated in an orderly fashion - most of them notified by reverse-911.

The San Diego reverse 911 system has only been in operation for a month. I suppose a good excuse, and hopefully there will be an advertising campaign to let people know that they should register their non-landline numbers.


 3:34 am on Oct 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

Oy vay! The City and Counties of San Diego are already sniping over the city's recent acquisition of a reverse 911 system!

It turns out that Reverse 911 is a trademark of PlantCML, which recently acquired it's developer, Sigma Communications, LLC.

County Supervisor Ron Roberts today criticized the city for it's acquisition of the Reverse911 system, because it is redundant with the county system - from a different manufacturer. He called the city's system "obsolete". He says the city could have used the county system for free. The city acquired the system because they didn't want to be beholden to the County Sheriff to use the system.

At least two of the statements made by Roberts appear to be inaccurate - he claims that the city system can't be used to notify cell phones. (Even though the city has a website where one can register for such...). And he claims that the system operates from a fixed physical location - though the manufacturer's literature suggests otherwise.

Looks like San Diego is already back to normal...


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