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City races to cut response time to minutes in disaster scenarios.

The faster the response to an emergency, the better the opportunity to limit damage and loss of life. Yet, in emergency situations, one of the most serious and difficult issues facing preparedness professionals is that of notifying individuals responsible for disaster containment and providing them with accurate information and instructions.

Whether the problem is earthquake, fire, flood, chemical release, civil disturbance or severe weather--to be most effective, response must be measured in minutes, not hours, as usually has been the case.

San Francisco is known for the two most severe earthquakes in United States history--the 1906 tremblor that nearly leveled the city, and the 1989 Loma Prieta quake that killed 63 people and caused $6 billion in damage. We resist the thought of another, but if one should strike we will be able to react more quickly and more effectively thanks in large part to a new emergency notification and response system called NovAlert.

An intelligent, automated multiport outdial telephone communications system produced by a unit of Message Processing International Inc., San Diego, it selectively contacts individuals on computerized lists in the event of an emergency or disaster.

As a basic, 24-port delivery system, it can contact and assemble disaster response teams and officials at a rate of up to 40 calls per minute. Each cabinet accommodates 96 ports and cabinets can be chained.

The notification problem was underscored dramatically last October when the City and County of San Francisco staged Exercise Quakeprep '92 as the first large scale activity to be held in our new Emergency Command Center. The ECC was built following the Loma Prieta quake, which measured 7.1 on the Richter scale. It is designed to withstand a quake of magnitude 8.1 or greater.

With Quakeprep '92, we instituted realistic emergency management training for key officials of the City of San Francisco as well as emergency operations personnel from all city agencies and some from the private sector. Ninety people representing a broad range of public service disciplines attended the one-week course.

As the final stage of the training, we activated a scenario which addressed the first five hours following a series of quakes, the first of magnitude 6.8 and lasting 28 seconds, with a second three minutes later measuring 7.3 and lasting 43 seconds.

In the scenario, conducted on a real time basis, the public telephone system became inoperable almost immediately because of traffic overload.

Receipt and issuance of reports was fragmentary at best and the telephone traffic jam radically interfered with the assembly of disaster response teams. Three hours into the exercise, for example, some people considered "indispensable" to the recovery effort still had not been reached.

Why? Because, under the conventional notification procedure, they were contacted one-by-one by calling teams who encountered access problems and busy signals.

Because of this condition, the Emergency Command Center communications network has been augmented to circumvent the reliance on the public network.

The Mayor's Emergency Telephone System (METS) is an entirely hard-wired, copper system which links every key emergency response location in the city with the Emergency Command Center (ECC) at 1003A Turk St. Other counties have similar systems, but in most cases they depend on microwave backup that may be non-operational following an earthquake. The METS has the added advantage that it is supported by a high-capacity switching system and has subscribers that are few in number and subject to centralized control. It is thus not likely to go out of action because of excess telephone traffic.

With improvements which should be completed this year, the METS will more effectively serve the ECC by linking not only key emergency responders but also all elements of the Emergency Broadcasting System that serves the Bay Area. The METS will operate in conjunction with System 75, which operates 35 other branch telephone exchanges serving city agencies.

The OASIS, or Operational Area Satellite Information System, linked San Francisco with the State Emergency Operations Center and other counties of the state in March. This system brings dial tone to the ECC's telephones, by-passing local systems likely to be over-loaded following an emergency.

The NovAlert features automated default capabilities that enable it to move from one communications resource to another, such as between public landline networks, METS or to either of the two locally permitted cellular systems if it cannot complete a call.

Moreover, in assembling the computerized lists, we include information on a variety of factors concerning each individual, such as occupational specialties; availability by time of day and day of week; and the telephone numbers at locations where a key individual is most likely to be at certain times.

Once activated either on-site or via a code input over a conventional or cellular telephone, NovAlert intelligently sorts and prioritizes a list of the people who must be notified. It immediately begins to contact them, 20 calls at a time.

For example, a downtown explosion might require isolating a section of the downtown area, necessitating the presence of the police chief and enough off-duty officers to cordon off the area. It is 8:30 p.m. NovAlert "reasons" that the chief will no longer be in his office and tries to reach him at home. There is no answer; the chief is on his way to a civic affair. The system switches to its first default, the cellular telephone in his official car. The chief answers, enters a code to indicate that he personally has received the message, and begins directing activity.

The City and County of San Francisco Office of Emergency Services acquired its NovAlert system from Message Processing of California (MPC) at no cost through the company's Emergency Operating Equipment Placement Program. In a revenue-generating partnership, MPC and the city solicit subscriptions to the city-provided notification service. The city participates in the income beginning with the second year of operations and attains ownership of the system after five years.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:San Francisco
Author:Bitoff, John W.
Publication:Communications News
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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