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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Different Problems Plague City's Latest Emergency Test

Posted by Nathan Gilles on Thu, Feb 16, 2012 at 10:44 AM

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On January 26 the city tested its new citywide emergency notification system. It failed. On February 9, officials tried again. And this time it worked—for the most part.

Yesterday, Mayor Sam Adams and Carmen Merlo, director of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM), gave a press conference about both tests and all the possible issues that still need to be worked out. But they said the biggest kink, by far, isn't the emergency system. It's CenturyLink’s inability to handle the volume of calls, texts, and emails—328,427 in the last test—that officials hope to get out.

The city’s emergency messages have to travel on the same network as every thousands of other calls, texts, and emails. And this pipe, says Adams, is only so big. According to Merlo, the first test failed because of technical problems at First Call, the company responsible for the notification system. But while the second test was successful, it took nearly seven hours to complete: nearly twice what First Call estimated. Merlo said that had more to do with CenturyLink than any new technical issues at First Call.

“This was not an issue with the vendor," she says, "but had to do with the throughput capability of our phone company."

Merlo says PBEM has started working with CenturyLink to solve this capacity problem.

Still, just how well the city’s emergency communications system will work in a major disaster is hard to say.

Merlo acknowledged that the city’s emergency calls would have to compete with other calls on the stressed network. But even assuming this problem can be overcome, the emergency notification might only work for certain kinds of emergencies: namely terrorist attacks, toxic plumes, and things like a cryptosporidium outbreak. The emergency system probably won’t work in a major earthquake. And the city has been kind of clear on this.

Last month, PBEM released its assessment (pdf) of what might happen if a large earthquake, similar to the one Japan experienced last year, were to hit the Portland. Among other cheery assessments—including that Portlanders will likely be on their own for at least 72 hours following the disaster—PBEM recognizes the city’s communications could go down.

CenturyLink’s three offices in town, which house those vital communication pipelines, “were constructed prior to seismic building codes.” In other words the buildings could experience extensive damage, as could all that sensitive electronic equipment inside.

But the good news: Barring any major catastrophe in which the city’s vital infrastructure would be either severely damaged or destroyed, the emergency notification system should hopefully work just fine.

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