USA –-As fire roared into the hills around Colorado Springs, only 1 in 13 numbers dialed by the county’s emergency alert system reached a live person.
The vast majority of the 118,000 calls warning of impending or immediate evacuation were met with voicemail, fax machines, hang-ups, busy signals or disconnected phone numbers. In some cases, homeowners had already left.
“By no means, don’t risk your safety waiting for a telephone call,” said Ben Bills, public information officer for El Paso-Teller County E911. “What this emergency should drive home for people is they should have a plan.”
The two people killed by the Waldo Canyon fire, William Everett, 74, and his wife, Barbara, 73, did not receive a warning call because they did not have a land line that was part of the county reverse-dialing alert system, nor did they have a cellphone registered with the county program, according to the E911 system’s records.
Of all calls dialed, about one-fifth 20,000 were dropped by telephone lines after the E911 system dispatched them, most likely because circuits were busy.
A similar “abandoned call” problem happened after an earthquake rocked Washington, D.C., last year, according to Colorado Springs emergency authorities. They still are looking into it, but so far they believe the calls were dropped because the network was overwhelmed.
“Ultimately, once 911 sends out the call, we are kind of at the mercy of technology down the line until it hits the house,” Bills said.
Emergency calls to the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, where hundreds of homes burned, went out at rush hour, a busy time for phone calls even on a normal day. Thousands of people were driving home from work calling each other to check on relatives, trying to find out whether they had received evacuation notices or just to talk about the smoke, Bills said. The sheriff, meanwhile, was asking people to stay off their phones unless necessary.
The El Paso-Teller County E911 system made 49 mass-dial alerts from June 23 through June 30, attempting to reach 118,779 people, according to system records.
One of the calls, a pre-evacuation alert in Teller County the afternoon of June 27, was confirmed to reach 272 people out of 2,506 calls. More than 380 of the attempts went to voicemail; about 50 others were hang-ups or not answered at all.
Emergency officials said they were concerned about the number of abandoned calls and plan to investigate how to improve technology in case of another emergency on this scale.
Reverse-dial warning systems aren’t capable of sending alerts calls, texts or e-mails to cellphones unless a person registers the number with the county’s emergency management office. Land lines are uploaded into the El Paso system four times each year with data from Comcast and CenturyLink.
The El Paso-Teller system had just 13,000 people registered in its cellphone database before the Waldo Canyon Fire. That number jumped to 52,000 as flames devoured homes; at the height of the panic, 1,000 residents per hour were registering their mobile numbers.
The number of registrants is expected to drop during the next few days because some people who signed up requested their registration expire within a couple of weeks, Bills said. The alert system isn’t used just for wildfires but also to warn of armed suspects hiding in a neighborhood and to ask for help finding missing children.
A wildfire in Jefferson County that killed three people also exposed holes in the reverse calling system. About 12 percent of residents in the North Fork fire area did not receive calls.
A Denver Post investigation found systems across Colorado have typical success rates of about 50 percent meaning residents get the warning only half the time.
The systems contain thousands of disconnected or no-longer-in-service phone numbers in databases that are updated every few months. And in most counties, residents have been slow to register their cellphone numbers even as more people go mobile only.