The Wrong Time to Find Out That Emergency Alert System Doesn't Work
By Jennifer Nislow
When a freight train carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed last year just outside of Minot, N.D., sending out a deadly plume of gas, the city's police department learned the fallibility of its emergency broadcast apparatus under the worst possible circumstances.
The accident occurred just after 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 18, 2002. Seven of 31 Canadian Pacific Railway freight cars that had been carrying the substance ruptured, spilling an estimated 290,000 gallons into the ground, onto the frozen Souris River and filling the air with a lethally toxic cloud. One man was killed and hundreds of others were injured, along with pets and livestock. In all, 97,000 tons of contaminated soil and 25,000 square feet of frozen river ice had to be hauled away.
"What I would tell other agencies, any dispatching facilities that have the responsibility to disseminate information through" and emergency alert system is "get to know your radio station," said Lt. Fred Debowey.
At the time of the accident, Minot still had what it believed was an operational Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) that would allow police to call up the local radio station and have it issue an emergency warning. The EBS was replaced in 1994 with the Emergency Alert System. Minot had both, Debowey told Law Enforcement News.
Of the city's seven radio and two television stations, six—all owned by Clear Channel Communications—are housed in two buildings some distance apart, with one technician for all of them, Debowey said. One of those, called the LP1, takes the emergency alert signal and either manually or automatically forwards it, depending on whether the equipment is set up to do that. It failed when the EAS signal regarding the derailment was sent from Minot Central Dispatch.
"Part of that was our fault," Debowey acknowledged. "When we put in the new generator for backup power for Y2K, we would get a power surge that erased all the information that was programmed [into it]."
The signal was not received by the radio station, thus the alert could not be sent out automatically. Even if it had worked, said Debowey, the station would have not received it because their radio had the wrong crystal.
"I'm going to say it's a crystal because it's an old radio," said Debowey. "Why that happened, I don't have a clue because I didn't put it in. The technicians tested it and everything like that, but it didn't work."
So the department tried its EBS, which was still up and functioning.
"Lo and behold, the machine that sends it out in the Ward County Jail failed on us," said Debowey. "We were in good form then. It had been tested just a few days before and it worked fine. We took it over to a radio guy afterward, and he said it just needed some routine maintenance and cleaning."
Then the department tried using the telephone to call the radio station, but no one ever picked up. "We rang it and we rang it and we rang it and he never answered the phone," Debowey said. It took over an hour and half for police to make contact.
In the meantime, police alerted some of the news staff from the local television stations, an NBC and a CBS affiliate. But the city's NBC affiliate was down that night, said Debowey. Everything else comes through cable, so there are no broadcast stations. And instead of turning on the station, one of the reporters grabbed a video camera and started recording, he said. "The other stations finally got on the air," the lieutenant said. "It took a while for them to get on line."
What happened in Minot is a stellar example of how little thought has been given to the communication and information systems that are the heart of all public safety and critical incident response, said John Cohen, president and chief executive of PSComm, LLC, a firm specializing in public safety telecommunications issues.
Cohen, who currently serves as a consultant to state officials in Arizona and city officials in Detroit, said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, state and local governments were active in setting up operation centers that focused on emergency response. However, Cohen said they generally overlooked what he called the "business process issue," such as the impact on 911 systems that need to off-load non-emergency calls during a incident, how residents would obtain access to social services, how the radio and telephone systems work and how information would be sent out in the event of a catastrophic service outage.
"What you're beginning to see now," Cohen told LEN, "is state and local governments beginning to take more of this a step backwards and say, 'Wait a minute, homeland security is something we're going to have to do forever—it's not simply waiting for a terrorist to run a plane into a building.' It can be a whole host of critical incidents, some of which are terrorism-related and others, the vast majority of which, are not. You're starting to see state and local governments say, 'Let's take a look at our day-to-day infrastructure, our telephone system, our information systems…. How do things work?'"
The time to find out that a 911 system does not have the capacity to handle the call volume is not when a city is under attack, Cohen said.
In the case of Minot, when police could not send out an emergency alert over the radio, the department's four 911 lines and seven administrative lines were swamped. Within two hours, said Debowey, the agency received as many emergency calls as it normally receives in a month.
"We were inundated," he said. "We couldn't talk to people. A lot of them wanted us to console them, and you can't in an emergency, you just can't. And they needed information. Until the radios and the television got on the air, the way to get information out was through that telephone call."
In 14 months since the accident, the city has established a steering committee of police, fire and communications officials through its Office of Emergency Management and its Emergency Resource Council, which has developed a host of new procedures and backup plans.
For less than a $100, a computer battery backup was purchased that has eliminated the type of power surge that caused the EAS equipment to lose its programming. The unreliable Emergency Broadcast System has been discarded.
There is no longer any need for someone to be at the radio station when an emergency message comes through as long as the station, Minot's KCJB, has its emergency alert equipment forwarding the signal automatically. And should the station go down, said Debowey, the department has a hotline to the state capital in Bismarck, the National Weather Service, and North Dakota State Radio.
"All we have to do is get on the hotline and say we have this emergency, and they take care of it for us," Debowey said.
The department has an unpublished telephone number for a radio station in Bismarck that is the state's leading disseminator for the EAS. It created a calling tree that has four emergency cell phone numbers for people in each of the organizations that would have to be contacted, said Debowey.
"We won't publish these, we won't give them to anybody, four-deep, so if someone isn't home, we can go on to the next till we get in contact," he said. "We update that quarterly—we're pestering these people every three months. Now we are keeping track because the public needs to know."
(Reprinted with permission from Law Enforcement News, a publication of John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY, Vol. XXIX, Nos. 595, 596, March 15/31, 2003.)