Tom Butt
  E-Mail Forum – 2016  
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  Community Warning System - A Failed Concept
August 16, 2016

By my count, the Community Warning System, which has been operating (if you can call it that) since the mid-1990s has never actually worked the way it was intended. Some of that is on those responsible for reporting incidents or activating it. Much of it is due to flaws in the system design and management.

Activation of the sirens is not a trivial matter. Whether the alert is for real, or a false alarm, a responsible citizen is asked to immediately “shelter in place.”  What does that mean? According to CAER, at about 3:00 PM today, some 30,000 residents and employees in Richmond and San Pablo should have “sheltered in place” while waiting or further instructions.

Community Warning System - A Failed Concept

According to CAER, here are the recommended steps to Shelter-in-Place:

  1. Advise everyone to stay inside. Announce to everyone in the building that the County has issued a Shelter-in-Place advisory. Recommend that people not leave the building during this time unless specifically ordered to do so by police or fire personnel. Leaving the building could result in exposure to toxic chemical vapors.
  2. Close all doors, windows and other sources of outside air. Close and lock windows for a tighter seal. Control access doors (locking will provide a tighter seal). Post a "Shelter-in-Place in Effect – Controlled Access" sign in the window so that people outside will know you are closed and Sheltering-In-Place. If additional people want to enter to Shelter-in-Place, minimize the time the door is held open. Move others in the room away from the door that is opened. People who insist on leaving the building should be allowed to leave, but advise them it is at their own risk since emergency officials have issued a Shelter-in-Place advisory.
  3. Turn off all air conditioning or heating systems. Your building's thermostats or air-handling cutoff switches should be labeled, and employees should be trained where they are located and how they work. Ceiling fans or portable fans can be used inside to keep cool while the ventilation system is shut down.
  4. Turn on your AM radio to KCBS 740. Emergency officials in Contra Costa County recommend tuning to KCBS 740 for emergency information. Officials will be providing the news media with updated information on the locations that should continue to Shelter-in-Place. If you have a television available, Bay Area television stations will also provide news reports, and should scroll information during the event.
  5. Stay off the telephone. Contra Costa County has a telephone ringdown system that will begin calling numbers in the impacted area during a Shelter-in-Place emergency. Avoid using the phone so it is available to receive the informational call. Do not call 9-1-1 to get more information. Only call 9-1-1 if you need immediate assistance with a life-threatening emergency. Overloaded telephone circuits (including cellular phone calls) can prevent actual emergency calls from getting through.

Following the recommended shelter in place protocol pretty much brings life in Richmond to a halt. It took me over 20 minutes to find out from the Richmond Fire Department through KCRT that it was a false alarm and publish the information in an E-FORUM at 3:23 PM, but 30,000 people don’t get my E-FORUM. The County did not issue its all-clear until 3:34 PM, more than half an hour after the sirens first sounded. And only those who know how to access the County website had access to the information.
There is a real cost or 30,000 people, particularly those at work, to stop what they are doing, stay indoors, close doors and windows, turn off the HVAC, turn on the radio to listen for non-existent information and avoid using the phone to wait for a phone call that never came – for over half an hour! Who is going to pay for this? No one. It’s the cost of doing business or the price for living in an industrial community. If each of these persons’ time is worth minimum wage, that’s $165,000!
You would think that in this era of social media and instant worldwide communications, a better system could be devised. Telemarketers have no trouble reaching us at all hours of the day, and I get a thousand emails a day than land in my spam filter. We get text messages, SnapChats, tweets, phone calls and Facebook posts constantly, but it is apparently impossible for Contra Costa County to find us within any reasonable time frame to tell us their system broke down again.
This simply is not acceptable.