Fire alerts reveal flaws in reverse-911 system
The Aug. 2 phone calls warning of a toxic cloud heading toward the Southern Berkshires started ringing into Great Barrington residents' homes just after 5 a.m.
People living in Egremont, Monterey, Richmond and West Stockbridge were phoned by authorities with a similar alert at about 9:45.
But not everyone got the warning: Residents who have unlisted numbers, rely solely on a cell phone or who utilize bundled phone plans through cable or Internet providers didn't receive the message un less they'd specifically signed up for alerts.
Emergency management officials say the threat of fumes from the chemical fire at the TCI transformer recycling company just over the border in Ghent, N.Y., amounted to the first real-world test of the citizen alert, reverse-911 systems in the county during a situation that had the makings of a serious and widespread public health threat.
Though the cloud never crossed the border into Massachusetts, authorities said the experience was instructive.
"What we heard covered the gamut of things, [from] a few people who were upset they were getting called at 5 a.m., to people telling us they didn't get it on their cell phones," said Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh.
In response, Walsh, the town's emergency management director, has instituted changes aimed at making it simpler for town residents to add or remove their numbers from the town's emergency management database.
Great Barrington and a handful of surrounding towns operate their own reverse-911 directories. The lists automatically include only land-line phone numbers.
Residents who get their phone service through Time Warner cable, for example, didn't get the calls. Neither did people who use only cell phones, have unlisted numbers, or rely on Internet-based phone service such as Vonage or magicJack.
"Under the old system, people had to go in themselves and make changes," Walsh said. "That was kind of confusing."
Now, town employees will add and remove people from the database themselves.
The incident revealed other hiccups in the system. For example, some residents said they received a call, but when they answered they didn't hear a message. Walsh said the system waits for an answer and then silence so it can leave messages on answering machines. He said people who answered and didn't wait long enough before saying something else or hanging up wouldn't have heard anything.
The Berkshire County Sheriff's Office also operates a county-wide reverse-911 system that covers the 21 towns served by the department's dispatch center. It delivered the Aug. 2 warnings to Egremont, Monterey, Richmond and West Stockbridge.
Maj. Tom Grady, who administers the system, said their phone database suffers from the same limitations as Great Barrington's: Residents with numbers that aren't listed in the phone book don't get the call, but can sign up if they choose.
On top of that, Grady said the sheriff's department system is slow. It relies on a bank of local phone lines and takes about an hour and a half to make 4,000 phone calls.
Grady said the department is considering contracting with a company that can provide a quicker service.
"The system works well to notify people when you have time," Grady said. "In an immediate emergency, if we had a tornado or something sudden, it would be much more cumbersome and difficult to do that."
Grady said the department also is looking to expand its social media presence to facilitate the quick distribution of important emergency information.
Pittsfield, meanwhile, doesn't have a reverse-911 system in place. Police Chief Michael Wynn said his department is set to contract with a vendor to provide the service, which he hopes will be up and running in the coming weeks.
He said that once the system is set up, the city will provide instructions for residents to register phone numbers and email addresses.
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Only Berkshire County residents with listed, landline phone numbers receive reverse-911 alerts, which update residents on issues ranging from pressing public health threats to crime updates to road closures, depending on the locality.
- Great Barrington, Egremont, Alford: These towns operate their own systems. Visit your town's website to sign up, or contact town hall.
- Pittsfield: Currently has no reverse-911 system, but plans to introduce one soon.
- Most other towns in the county are served by the sheriff's department. You can call the dispatch center to add or remove your number: (413) 445-4559.
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