Wildfires that swept across Southern California last month exposed a flaw in systems that transmitted evacuation warnings: People who depend on cell phones or Internet-based services often didn't get the message.
So-called reverse-911 systems transmitted recorded messages to landline phones located in danger zones, but people who use Vonage or cell phones often learned of evacuation orders from neighbors or the media. Most didn't get calls.
"It's not a technical problem," said Nicholas Maier, vice president of RedSkyTechnologies Inc., a Chicago firm that specializes in providing advanced 911 services to enterprises and universities.
His firm offers software that can do the job, Maier said.
RedSky's program helps businesses keep track of where its phones are located so that if someone makes a 911 call, emergency personnel know precisely where the call originated, Maier said.
That can get tricky with newer services that enable phones to move around.
Internet-based services such as Vonage allow customers to use their home phone number from anywhere they can get a broadband Internet connection. RedSky's software handles that problem by asking an Internet phone user to reveal his location before he makes a connection, Maier said.
"If somebody from Chicago has his phone in a San Francisco hotel room, we'll know where he is, and if he dials 911, the call is directed to a San Francisco public safety center," he said.
On college campuses equipped with RedSky software, students and faculty can register their cell phone numbers to get short messages to inform them of any emergency notices, Maier said. Messages are also sent to their computers.
"We are in trials with service providers to incorporate our product into their architecture so that, say, all end points that are in the path of a fire would get a warning," he said.
DIMMING FUTURE: The incandescent light bulb was a bright idea, but its glow is fading.
An estimated 4 billion light sockets in the U.S. are about 90 percent filled with incandescent bulbs, said Francis Santiago, executive vice president and general manager of Osram Sylvania.
But within the next seven years, it's likely that incandescents' market share will fall to about 70 percent, he said.
People are buying compact fluorescent and halogen bulbs, Santiago said while on a recent business trip to Chicago, but the real incandescent killer on the horizon is the light-emitting diode.
"LEDs are solid-state electronics," Santiago said, "and they just keep getting brighter and cheaper every year. And they use way less power."
LEDs are used now primarily by businesses, and their cost is still too high for most consumer applications, he said, but within three or four years, they will probably become cheap enough to compete with incandescent bulbs for household use.
"An LED will last 50,000 hours," Santiago said. "For many people, that's nearly a lifetime."
NOVELTY NO MORE: Airports are popular with people looking to go online wirelessly, and Chicago's O'Hare International Airport tops them all, a survey of nearly 2 million sessions earlier this year finds.
In the use of wireless hot spots by business people, New York and Chicago ranked as most active in the survey from iPass Inc., known as the Wi-Fi Hotspot Index. Worldwide, however, London took top honors as the hottest hot spot, with nearly four times more traffic than runner-up New York.
"These results indicate that business demand for Wi-Fi hot spots has grown from a novelty to a mainstream need," said Joel Wachtler, vice president of market and strategy for iPass. "We are also seeing that use of hot spots is a global phenomenon with the standard for growth being set in European and Asian countries."
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