Fire Emergency Puts Stress on Telecom

The fire emergency proves the mettle of the Reverse 911 warning system and shows weaknesses in some VOIP services.

The Southern California wildfires, which have forced more than half a million people to evacuate their homes in the last several days, have been a proving ground for the efficiency of emergency communication services.

People in the fires path have been relying on everyday communication services such as VOIP (voice over IP) and cell phones to stay abreast of the rapidly changing conditions. As a result, some of those people missed urgent messages to evacuate their homes and businesses.

In San Diego County, a relatively new server-based software package that plugs into emergency phone systems is being used to notify a large number of people about safety issues, and it is performing with flying colors.

In this case, the sheriffs department is using a system bought in 2005—after the deadly 2004 Southern California wildfires—to warn more than half a million people to evacuate and to give situation updates. It is a way to warn a precise number of people in harms way that can be controlled from one location—in this case, the county sheriffs office.

The automated telephone system, made by Temecula, Calif.-based PlantCML and known as a "reverse 911" system, sends a recorded message from an emergency authority to hundreds or thousands of landline phone numbers within seconds in a geographical calling area. The system is designed to ring all landline numbers, listed or unlisted.

If the system hears a busy signal, it will keep trying the line until someone—or at least a machine—answers.


Click here to read about how Southern California high-tech companies are coping with the fire emergency.

"There is no limit on the number of calls this system can make," PlantCML CEO and co-founder Tim Fuller told eWEEK. "It really depends upon the size of the telephone system it is serving. It is both server-based and a hosted system—customers have a choice —that is very easy to use."

PlantCML started out about 20 years ago as a developer of inbound 911 call systems for analog phone centers. In the last 18 months, the company bought two other companies—DialLogic and Sigma Communications—that have contributed to the Reverse 911 notification system. The main engine was originally developed by Sigma, Fuller said.

"The inbound 911 systems are our legacy systems, and were very proud of the job they have done over the years," Fuller said. "The outbound Reverse 911 system is proving its value right now."

The system cost the sheriffs department $300,000 to buy and install, a department spokesman said.

However, there are limitations. While the system works well for traditional landline phones, it is not able to reach cell phones because it doesnt have access to that database of ever-changing numbers.

In addition, there were reports Oct. 24 that the emergency notifications also were not reaching people with VOIP phones—most notably Vonage customers.

Vonage, with 2.45 million customers, is the largest VOIP service provider in the nation.

San Diego County resident Steve Kovsky, who was evacuated from his home in the Vista, Calif. area, was camped out with his family, pets and horses on a ranch away from the danger.

Kovsky e-mailed this warning to eWEEK Editorial Director Eric Lundquist: "A note of caution to VOIP subscribers: Vonage customers were reportedly unable to receive the evacuation notices, although subscribers of cable-based phone systems offered by TV programming service providers did get the calls. Check with your provider—choosing the right phone service could be a life-or-death decision."

Kovskys report was verified. Kathy Gomez, a homeowner and Vonage customer interviewed Oct. 24 in a San Diego County shelter by a local television reporter, said she never got the notification from the local authorities that she should evacuate.

"I saw my neighbors packing up and leaving, so I thought Id better go with them," she said.

A San Diego Police Department staff officer confirmed to eWEEK that emergency communications with people who only owned cell phones and those with some VOIP services were problematic.


To read about how VARs are aiding customers forced to evacuate their businesses during the fire storm, click here.

A few Vonage customers expressed their displeasure about this in posts on the independent, although many of the posts had been removed by the end of the day.

Vonage spokesperson Charles Sahner told eWEEK that Vonage is indeed aware of the problem VOIP carriers have with "traditional emergency notification systems, which are designed to work with the traditional analog landlines—namely, the old AT&T system."

"These systems [including Reverse 911] are not designed for nomadic systems like cell phones or VOIP," Sahner said. "They use the old database of landline numbers.

"Weve been working with state and local officials for a long time in an effort to get everybody on the same page. The emergency-system people need to realize that the world is moving to other services like cells and VOIP, and that these lists of numbers should be included with all the older landline numbers."

In another news item, Verizon announced Oct. 24 in a press release that it is providing wildfires evacuees with a range of free calling services—from cell phones to automatic call-forwarding—to help them stay connected during the natural disaster.

The Verizon Foundation said it will donate $60,000 to the American Red Cross for fire victims, with the grant to be divided equally among the Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Riverside county chapters of the Red Cross.


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Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...