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Ref: San Francisco using new web-based emergency alert system

PC World

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Is That an Earthquake? Check Your PDA

Common sense is still the key for San Francisco's new SMS eemergency alerts.
Agam Shah, IDG News Service
Sunday, July 15, 2007 12:00 PM PDT
After smoke was spotted billowing from a San Francisco subway tunnel on June 5, the city government swung into action, alerting citizens via SMS to not panic and to expect public transport delays.

The alert was from AlertSF, the city government's text-based emergency notification system for e-mail accounts and mobile devices including cell phones and pagers. Originally designed to deliver tsunami alerts and other post-disaster information, AlertSF subscribers can receive alerts about flooding, power outages and traffic disruptions.

San Francisco's biggest risk is from an earthquake, said Laura Adleman, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Emergency Management. "People would want to know where they could go for assistance," she said, adding that Alert SF is "one tool" that helps the city provide that information.

Alerting users about future earthquakes is not the system's intent, Adleman said. Predicting an earthquake is difficult, and the service's primary intent is to deliver post-disaster information. The service delivers U.S. Geological Survey alerts of Northern California earthquakes measuring 5.0 or above.

Launched in October last year, the free service now has 8,840 subscribers, Adleman said. Users can sign up for it on the AlertSF Web site. Registration took me less than two minutes; it offered the option to receive alerts in English or Spanish, via SMS (Short Message Service) or e-mail. Alerts are sent based on Zip codes or areas selected, and depending on the importance, some alerts are sent to all areas. Users can opt in and out of nationwide Amber Alerts about missing or kidnapped children, California weather alerts issued by U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and USGS earthquake alerts.

Noemi Margaret, a San Francisco resident and community emergency volunteer, appreciates the alerts, even though none has affected her yet. "I'm happy in having the alerts come to my cell phone" as accessing e-mail takes time, Margaret said.

AlertSF not only could save lives, it also serves as a security blanket, wrote Brent Schulkin, a San Francisco resident, in an e-mail interview. "Every month or two you get a little text reminder that someone is closely watching these potential threats to your community," he said.

Technology savvy residents of San Francisco are also witnessing the service's growing pains.

Margaret receives about two alerts every month, which is not enough, she said. "More alerts would not be harmful. Information should not be shared among the elite few," she said, referring to first responders, "it should be shared with everybody." First responders are usually first on scene in emergencies. Recently a city subway line stopped operating and an alert about it was not sent, she said. An alert could have let people know to find an alternative route, she said.

Also, providing just an SMS alert is not enough, Margaret said. It should be followed up with a detailed e-mail about how citizens can act in other emergencies they were alerted about, she said.

E-mail alerts include a link to, a Web site set up by the city that provides information on what to do in emergencies, Adleman said. A size limit prevents inclusion of the link in cell-phone alerts. In some circumstances, instructions will be sent as part of an alert, like asking citizens to get to higher ground in case of a tsunami.

Some users complained about not receiving alerts, though that's a minor issue, Adleman said. The government is still evaluating AlertSF, Adleman said.

"There's going to be other ways we communicate with people, like the emergency alert system and press," Adleman said, though AlertSF will be an immediate messaging system when the city is in response mode.

AlertSF uses Roam Secure Inc.'s RSAN CWS (Citizen's Warning System) software to send text alerts. As San Francisco is one of the most densely populated cities in the U.S., the city needed speed and reliability to transmit emergency information, said Bart Spencer, western regional manager at Roam Secure and an emergency service industry veteran.

Text messaging is quicker and more reliable than voice as it transmits information in short bursts and uses less bandwidth. Users have found timely text alerts useful, especially regarding traffic disruptions, Adleman said.

However, after a disaster, cell-phone networks, electricity and communication systems may not work. AlertSF is an Internet-based service, and San Francisco has a server outside the Bay Area to keep the alert operation running, Adleman said. When the cell-phone network is operational, users will instantly receive the text alert and remain informed, Spencer said.

"It's better to inform people than not to inform them," Spencer said.

Informed people react better in emergencies, said Margaret, a self-professed emergency preparation geek. "It's important that people sign up" for the service, she said.

However, the sign-up comes with a caveat, she said. "I wouldn't want people to depend on that [AlertSF] over common sense."

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