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Advocate Newspaper -Baton Rouge- Louisiana

Warning system for EBR spotty

Advocate staff writer
Published: Dec 27, 2006

Only about half of the phone calls by an automated system designed to alert people to chemical accidents and other emergencies in East Baton Rouge Parish were deemed successful during tests over the past several years.

About 57 percent of the calls made during Community Alert System tests were answered by people or answering machines — such calls are considered “successful.”

The fact that more and more people are choosing cell phones over regular-wired home phones is making the CAL alert system less effective, officials said. And people living in neighborhoods near chemical plants tend to move often, meaning many phone numbers in the system are no longer good, they said.

The automated messages are supposed to supplement sirens and loud-speaker warnings. But some residents around the industrial area north of Baton Rouge say they must go outside to hear the broadcast messages, which usually inform them to stay inside, close windows and turn off air conditioners during industrial chemical accidents.

JoAnne Moreau, director of the city-parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, is authorized to occasionally obtain from phone companies all listed and unlisted land-line numbers and enter them into a database.

In emergencies or tests, operators use a computer mapping screen to draw a circle around an affected area. The computer then sends a phone message to every home or business listed in that area with instructions on what to do.

Ralph Ladnier, who heads the office that oversees 9-1-1 calls, said “the bottom line is the system is being less effective every year as we go.”

The Baton Rouge Fire Department, one of CAL’s operators, often reports to the Local Emergency Planning Commission about the test results. Those results are contained in the meeting minutes of the commission.

An analysis of 14 reports to the commission between October 2003 and October 2006 shows only about half of the 3,525 calls made — 57 percent — were deemed “successful.”

Of those “successful” calls, only 9 percent were answered by a person. The other 48 percent were completed to answering machines.

Peggy Colomb, chief of fire communications, said the tests are often done while people are at home during the dinner hour. The caller identification for the system says “Smart Ring” rather than indicating the call is from the city-parish, so many people probably don’t answer, she said.

The people in those homes still get the needed information through answering-machine messages, she said.

About 15 percent of the time, there was “no answer,” according to the test reports.

“Bad” numbers, also categorized as “operator intercept” and “error,” accounted for nearly one in four calls, or 23 percent. In August, for example, 233 of 602 test calls made were bad numbers.

Stephanie Anthony, who lives in north Baton Rouge, said it was seven years before she ever received a CAL call — and when she finally did, the message told her to call CAL but gave no number.

She said many people near the chemical plants don’t grasp the “shelter-in-place” concept. When a chemical spill occurs, people are supposed to turn off air conditioners, close windows and use plastic and duct tape to cover gaps in doors and other openings until an all-clear signal is given.

Anthony said the sirens  entice people to step outside — exactly the opposite of the desired reaction.

Colomb said officials are trying to get the message out to people to check television and radio stations for information when they hear the sirens. Homeland security officials can put a bulletin, or “crawl,” on WAFB Channel 9.

But Anthony said few people know to tune in to that channel. And she said in some instances she has tuned in to the radio but heard nothing.

The increased popularity of cell phones plagues the effort, Moreau said. The emergency planning commission is looking at improvements, she said.

Ladnier said people can register their cell phone or Internet phone and address with the CAL system by using the city-parish Web site or filling out cards often distributed at community meetings.

Ladnier said he sent a letter to wireless companies asking for ways to notify cell-phone users in specific geographic areas covered by a cell tower.

“Your phone associates to a tower, but the technology isn’t quite there yet,” he said.

One company provides that service, but users would have to sign up — and that is “fairly expensive,” he said.

Ladnier said it would be good to be able to alert cell-phone users within range of a specific tower. Emergency officials would be able to use such technology for incidents other than chemical spills, he added.

Motorists stuck in hurricane-evacuation traffic could be told about progress, what services are available at which exits and other information.

“There are a lot of things you could use it for,” Ladnier said.


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