Emergency notification registration process confuses Victoria residents

Elena Watts By Elena Watts

June 5, 2013 at 1:05 a.m.
Updated June 6, 2013 at 1:06 a.m.

A lack of emergency response to the recent tornado that touched down in North Victoria disturbed Troy Eason, an oil-field superintendent from Victoria.

"There are no sirens to turn on in an emergency," Eason said. "And we can't send Paul Revere."

Eason read about the 2-1-1 registration service for reverse 9-1-1 emergency notifications in the Advocate and decided to call.

The call specialist who answered the telephone seemed confused and told him a supervisor would call him back.

Another area resident called to register and reached a recording of options that did not include registering for emergency alerts.

The confusion they experienced stemmed from recent changes in the service.

The last few years, the Victoria Office of Emergency Management has partnered with 2-1-1 to allow residents to register for the service by telephone, which was especially valuable for those without Internet access.

The website has since changed, preventing call specialists from completing the registrations.

Emergency management representatives can walk callers through the online registration process, or register those without Internet access over the phone.

Listed numbers are automatically registered for the emergency notifications.

No one realized the problem existed until residents began calling after the Advocate published the registration information.

Compounding the confusion, a new call center process - statewide call routing instead of regional - required special permissions that were not in place.

"There are always options - libraries, loved ones, caretakers or friends who will help," Jeb Lacey, Victoria County emergency management coordinator, wrote in an email. "We will do everything we can to get everyone registered, and do our best to overcome obstacles."

The Victoria County reverse 9-1-1 system, which has been provided by the same vendor for the last four years, has registered about 22,300 residential, cell and business phone numbers.

The contract costs $14,700 per year, an expense shared by the city and county of Victoria.

With the current provider, the system has been used three to four times per year for hazardous material emergencies, missing children, major accidents and other incidents.

It has only been used county-wide once, during a flood in 2010. The system processed the call, which dialed 17,000 residential numbers, in about an hour-and-a-half. Ten-thousand of those calls were answered.

"Less frequent use means our citizens are being exposed to fewer hazards, which is something we can all hope for," said Lacey.

With the exception of the countywide flood call, the system has always isolated calls by numbers associated with areas where the events occurred.

Actually, Eason would not have received an alert about the tornado from the emergency management office.

The funnel cloud only touched down for a couple of minutes, so there was not enough time to issue a warning.

Brittany Thompson, 24, of Edna, received a warning about the tornado just minutes before she actually saw it. The Victoria Advocate posted the National Weather Service NOAA Weather Radio link via Facebook.

At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Lacey said an outdoor warning system is not a cost-effective option for Victoria. A basic system would cost about $1.4 million initially and $85,000 per year to maintain.

The warnings only reach people who are outdoors, cannot communicate actionable information and are specific to one particular hazard with a historically low probability in the Victoria area.

Furthermore, the outdoor warning system must be activated locally, which means there would be a delay between the National Weather Service warning and system activation.

The reverse 9-1-1 indoor warning system is driven directly by National Weather Service warnings, so it is a better solution for all types of weather hazards.

Warning systems do not replace individual efforts to plan for emergencies and to stay informed with television, radio and social media.

"With advancements in indoor warning systems, improvements to the Emergency Alert System, the roll out of the nationally developed Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, social media platforms and effective relationships with a proactive media, siren systems simply do not do the job well anymore," Lacey said. "Many communities have done away with their outdoor warning systems entirely. Others have opted to do away with communitywide systems, and instead only install outdoor warning systems in public spaces such as parks."



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