O.C., L.A. County lack a reverse-911 system

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County lacks the type of automatic emergency telephone system that San Diego authorities used this week to deliver evacuation orders to nearly 600,00 households and businesses threatened by fast-moving wildfires.

Several local cities have installed such systems -- including Los Angeles, Long Beach, Inglewood and Beverly Hills. But officials in the nation’s most populous county say they are only now preparing an overarching emergency structure that could potentially send a recorded message to every residential and business telephone. Officials said they did not expect it to be ready before spring.

County officials say their planned system faces numerous obstacles, including the enormous size of the 4,084-square-mile county, its many unincorporated and isolated pockets, and the dozens of languages spoken by its 10 million residents.

“It’s a lot easier for a city. . . to say, ‘Let’s do this,’ ” County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Wednesday, noting that some areas affected by the Canyon fire in Malibu this week did have an automatic phone warning system in place. “Having said that, we should do it.”

Some emergency preparedness leaders in the city of Los Angeles question whether the system operated by its Fire Department has the capacity to make hundreds of thousands of phone calls in a citywide emergency. The city’s system currently has 22 outgoing phone lines, used generally to reach specific neighborhoods. The Port of Los Angeles has its own system.

“I would like to see a system that can go citywide -- a system that can call out on a broader base because we can’t predict the scope of a significant emergency,” said Jim Featherstone, the new chief of Los Angeles’ emergency preparedness agency.

City Councilman Jack Weiss, who chairs the public safety committee, said Wednesday he would soon schedule a hearing to examine the capabilities of the network, known popularly as Reverse 911, after a company that trademarked the name.

But earlier in the day, other council members said they were unaware that the city had such a system. After learning about San Diego’s calling procedure from a relative, City Councilman Tom LaBonge formally asked city agencies to report back on whether they should implement a reverse 911 system. Later in the day, city fire officials confirmed that such a system has been operating since 2005 and has been used to warn residents where there is high fire danger.

An automated phone system operated by the city of San Diego has put warning or evacuation calls out to 85,792 households since the current wildfires erupted. A separate system operated by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has placed calls to 337,000 households; a third system operated by San Diego County reached 171,919 households or businesses.

Orange County has no countywide warning service, according to a spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Authority, but some cities there do, including Irvine, Cypress, Seal Beach and Los Alamitos.

San Diego County officials launched their phone system in 2005. San Diego area officials acknowledged that their systems failed to reach all residents in harm’s way this week, saying the fires interrupted phone service in some areas. The systems also did not have complete access to all cellphone numbers.

Still, emergency preparedness authorities for that county and the city of San Diego, which launched its notification system last month, said their phone messages saved lives, a sentiment shared by some who received calls. Others said they appreciated that officials were making such a pronounced effort.

Jeannine Sullivan, a resident the San Diego enclave of Scripps Ranch, said she evacuated her home Monday but returned a day later to hear a reverse 911 call on her answering machine.

“I think it’s a good thing, and even if we received the call after we left, it shows that everyone learned a lesson” from the 2003 Cedar fire, Sullivan said. “There was no warning then. Everybody left when we saw the flames on the hill. It was such chaos.”

Beverly Hills introduced its phone system 12 years ago. The city used the technology in April to notify neighborhoods around Benedict Canyon about a fire. The city also can use the system to inform residents of criminal activity and to let businesses know about protests that might interfere with their daily routine.

“The lifesaving capacities are tremendous,” said Deputy City Manager Cheryl Friedling.

“People like to know that we have the situation under control.”

Several firms provide automated phone service, but Temecula-based PlantCML says it has the majority of contracts for Reverse 911 systems in the United States.

The company has contracts to provide or deliver Reverse 911 to more than 1,000 cities and counties, with high-end systems typically costing several hundred thousand dollars, said Lorin Bristow, a PlantCML vice president.

He said such systems became popular in the 1980s after being initially designed to warn residents living around nuclear powerplants.

“Since then it has taken off into many other areas and has been bolstered tremendously by Sept. 11,” Bristow said, referring to the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Bristow said reverse 911 systems are capable of calling both wired telephones and cellphones, and that different localities collect the numbers they want to reach in different manners: Some ask residents to submit numbers, while others purchase numbers from consumer-data firms.

Los Angeles County emergency preparedness officials have been working for more than a year on a mass notification system with help from several cities, including Los Angeles. They expect to pick a vendor by the end of the year.

About two-thirds of Los Angeles County -- or 2,649 square miles -- is unincorporated, including many communities and hamlets in remote corners of the San Gabriel Mountains, where fires burned this week.

The proposed system would serve those areas plus any other city that has a regular 911 emergency network and wants to participate, said Doyle Campbell, the deputy chief executive for public safety for Los Angeles County.

Campbell cautioned that reverse 911 should only be part of a broad warning system.

“You can have phone systems go down in an emergency,” he said.

“And even with mass notification systems you still need to put deputies into an area to ensure compliance and to make sure people actually received notice.”

Times staff writer H.G. Reza contributed to this report from San Diego.