Folks without landlines may be out of loop in emergency

Emergency notices go to VoIP or cellphones only if they’re registered

By Paul Suarez, Columbian web producer

Published:

 

Sample community alert message from CCF&R

Register for alert messages

To register a cellphone or VoIP number to receive emergency alerts, visit http://cresa911.org/be-informed and follow the instructions there.

Clark County Fire & Rescue needed to make a few calls.

Last month, someone digging outside a house at 1902 S.W. First Court in Battle Ground hit a gas line. Gas could be smelled for about 100 yards around the leak, CCF&R Battalion Chief Brett Graham said at the time. The fire department opted to warn nearby residents to stay inside for their safety using the community notification system.

That system, notifies a cluster of people about emergency activity near them. Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency personnel draw an outline on a computer map; the computer calls all registered phone numbers within the boundary with a specialized message. The only problem: CRESA can’t reach most of the phone numbers in the county.

Numbers in the database are primarily landlines. People with cellphones or those with VoIP lines from a service provider other than Comcast must opt in to receive the alerts. That could be a problem as people shift away from landlines in favor of cellphones.

According to data published in March by the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of adults in the United States own a smartphone, 41 percent own some other kind of cellphone, and 12 percent have no cellphone. Pew reported in 2010 that only 74 percent of homes had a landline phone, down from 97 percent in 2001.

According to CRESA, there are 487,000 phone lines in Clark County. About 65 percent of those are mobile, 23 percent are landline and 11 percent are VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol).

John Wheeler, emergency management coordinator at CRESA, works with the community alert system. He said 3,329 phone numbers have registered for the service. That is less than 1 percent of the 370,000 or so total cell and VoIP numbers in the county, he said.

“Today, there’s no effective way we can reach those people,” Wheeler said. “There’s an emerging capability that isn’t in place yet.”

That future capability would catch cellphones traveling through the selected area and automatically send the message to them, said Cheryl Bledsoe, CRESA emergency management division manager. Cellphone companies are working to make that happen; for now, people need to opt in, she said. To do that, they can follow the registration process at http://cresa911.org/be-informed.

First-responder and law-enforcement agencies can use the system when it’s appropriate, Bledsoe said.

A few months ago, Vancouver police used it when looking for a vulnerable adult who was missing, possibly for several hours. She needed medication and could have been without it, Bledsoe said. People who lived near where she was last seen got a call through the system. It said police would be in the area looking for her and asked anyone with information to call 911.

The system could also be used if a child was reported missing, Bledsoe said.

Clark County Fire & Rescue asked to use the system to warn everyone within a half-mile of the April 28 gas leak to stay inside.

Wheeler got the request, recorded a message and issued it around 12:55 p.m. -- less than an hour after the leak. It went out to 185 people, then was canceled midstream when the gas company had plugged the leak, he said. CRESA then sent out a cancellation notice letting people know it was safe to go outside.

Paul Suarez: 360-735-4522; http://twitter.com/col_cops; paul.suarez@columbian.com.