Residents of five Central Texas counties received phone calls this weekend telling them to evacuate their homes ahead of uncontained wildfires. The calls came from the Emergency Notification System of the Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG). Most of the calls came on landlines, which are registered automatically with CAPCOG through the counties’ 911 databases. But the agency has been swamped with citizens scrambling to register their mobile phones with the Emergency Notification System. Normally, all mobile phone registrations are batched and updated once a month, but as the fires raged this Labor Day weekend, CAPCOG has responded to user demand by registering about 10,000 new mobile numbers. Mobile phones can be registered at http://wireless.capcog.org. When users register a cell phone, they choose the location associated with that phone within the 10-county area. They can choose more than one location if they wish to be notified of impending threats to their childrens’ or parents’ homes.
“I wish I could say that once you register your number in the system, notification is immediate, but it is not,” says Ed Schaefer, Director of Homeland Security for CAPCOG. “You cannot put your cell phone in, and expect that if a fire breaks out in your area within an hour you will receive a call.” But with no rain in the Central Texas forecast, Texans know the danger may be far from over. And with more and more people forgoing landlines and relying solely on mobile service, registration with the Emergency Notification System could be a life saving decision. “This system is great for waking people up,” says Schaeffer, noting that while the news media has done a good job of covering this weekend’s disaster, traditional media does not have the power to alert people who are not watching.
Schaeffer says CAPCOG made 8,794 calls this weekend between noon on Sunday and 11:00 pm on Monday, with about a 70% connect rate. About 25% of the calls were answered by a live person, and another 45% reached answering machines or were picked up by a person who did not respond. The computer generated calls are activated by specially trained personnel working in the 911 caller response centers. The calling system, purchased by CAPCOG from California’s Cassidian Communications, is capable of placing 30,000 calls simultaneously according to Schaeffer.