At around 11:30 Thursday night, people around Washington were jolted awake by their cellphones. The devices blared and vibrated, delivering an urgent 88-character message:
“Widespread 911 outage in WA. In case of emergency, call local police or fire department.”
The late-night notification was prompted by the nationwide Century Link service outage, which by Thursday evening had shut down most inbound calls to 911 centers in the state. It was the first time Washington’s emergency management division used a system that allows government agencies to push alerts to every cellular device in a given area, a capability it only gained on Dec. 11, after months of development and testing.
The notifications are one part of an evolution in emergency communications in the mobile age. Another is the ability for people to text to 911, a new service that became available in King County on Dec. 20 and remained functional during the outage, said Ben Breier, the county’s Enhanced 911 (E-911) program manager.
Emergency managers are still developing best practices for sending out alerts and plan to study the results of their actions surrounding Thursday night’s 911 outage closely.
“This is going to provide a wealth of information to us,” said Anthony Clark, supervisor of the Washington Emergency Management Division’s alert and warning center. “We’ve got (standard operating procedures), but most of those are based on theories.”
Some people received multiple alerts about the outage on Thursday because some Washington counties also sent out their own alerts with more specific information, such as the 10-digit phone numbers of local emergency services. King County sent messages to people who had signed up for a separate ALERT King County system, Breier said. The City of Seattle also operates its own opt-in alert system, which sent a notification Thursday night.
The statewide alert, called a Wireless Emergency Alert, was sent through the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), the same one tested in October to send a nationwide Presidential Alert. It is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is used in coordination with law-enforcement agencies to send alerts about missing children, by the National Weather Service to warn of extreme weather, and for other emergencies.
The system broadcasts a text message with up to 90 characters from all cell towers in a given geographic area. Any device capable of receiving the alerts should receive the warning, unless it has been set to opt out. It is not possible to opt out of receiving presidential alerts, however.
The decision to use the IPAWS is left up to approved local agencies. In Washington, 21 government agencies have been authorized to use the system and 11 more were in process of gaining the authority as of early December, according to FEMA.
At the Emergency Management Division, a unit of the Washington Military Department, the decision of whether and how to use the system during a given incident resides with director Robert Ezelle or one of his deputies.
On Thursday night, the cascading effects of the CenturyLink outage began to seriously impact 911 calls across Washington. Ezelle held a conference call to discuss the response with county emergency managers, 911 coordinators and representatives from CenturyLink and Comtech Safety and Security, which is taking over the state’s 911 contracts.
The decision to send a statewide text alert was “supported by a great many of the individual counties” represented on that call, Ezelle said. Some counties also offered more specific information to people in their local jurisdictions through their own alerts.
The text alert followed other notification efforts through various media channels, which included emergency phone numbers to call and a reminder about the new text-to-911 capabilities.
“We just looked at it as being the final thing to do to cover all the bases,” Ezelle said, acknowledging “there’s probably some people not appreciative of being woken up in the middle of the night.”
But, as Clark noted, that’s often when people need to access emergency services.
“Ultimately, we were doing our best to be proactive,” Ezelle said.
He said emergency management professionals will be listening for feedback on the wireless alerts, looking for unanticipated impacts and analyzing the phrasing of the messages they sent.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter