Did Reverse 911 System Work During Fires?

The Internet, cell phones, e-mail, text messaging -- to not communicate these days seems impossible.

"It's the information age," says Brant Nohlburg of Vista.

The massive wildfires put San Diego County's technology to the test.

For the first time ever, the county and city used Reverse 911 systems on a large scale to notify residents of evacuations.

Officials said the system saved lives, but it is not without flaws.

"There was no warning. No warning whatsoever," said Ramona resident Don Weihs who like his neighbors around him thought they would receive a Reverse 911 call from the county, but the phone never rang.

The county's Reverse 911 system called residents in Ramona on the afternoon of Oct. 28, but Weihs said he never received that call. He was able to leave the area that evening with just minutes to spare.

"It was one of those things where if you dropped your keys, you would've been burned in place," he said.

After the fires, 10News received e-mail after e-mail from evacuees who said they never received a Reverse 911 call.

Carolyn in Escondido wrote, "… We never received the call from the Reverse 911 system and we have had landline phones… with an elderly, handicapped, fragile health person living in this house, we needed to be notified earlier than most folks."

Scripps Ranch resident Lori Lorenz said, "That was encouraging knowing we'd get an advance warning to finish the packing and leave."

But it never happened for Lorenz. She checked with others on her street and no one received a call.

"So, when we saw it on TV, we decided to leave, but no call came," added Lorenz.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said, "We think it worked very well, generally. We also think there are some holes in it."

Both the city and county admitted that there are bugs in the system.

"It's not a perfect system; it's not the end all," said Jan Caldwell from the San Diego Sheriff's Department.

Caldwell said the major problem was the information from telecomm companies that provide the phone numbers.

"This information is only as good as what we receive from the telephone companies," said Caldwell.

The assumption was the phone company would have correct information on landline numbers.

The 10News I-Team found that the Reverse 911 system was not the only communication problem.

Just as the fires gained momentum, the well-publicized San Diego County Emergency Web site got about 10 million hits. Many citizens and the media, desperate for information, had trouble logging on to the site.

Nohlburg said, "I went to the county emergency page, tried to log on, but it was lagging."

Thousands of locals had the same problem with the Web site, which is hosted by contractor Northrop Grumman.

The company's $650 million contract is the largest in the county's history.

County sources tell 10News there have been repeated problems with Northrop Grumman.

Not so, said San Diego County official Michael Workman who says Northrop Grumman got the Web site moving within 6 hours during the fires.

"We were prepared to get that information out and get it out to lots of people, not 10 million people," said Workman.

What was the cause?

When CNN, Fox and other national media began reporting the wildfires story, they provided links to the County's Web site. The resulting traffic overloaded the system, the I-Team learned.

Another problem? "The map wouldn't load and when it did load, it took half an hour to 45 minutes to get downloaded," said Nohlburg.

Maps that helped people figure out where the fires were going would not load. Too much information, but the county corrected that problem by Tuesday, and learned a lesson.

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