Boulder Fire: Reverse 911-Like System Fails for Those Without Antiquated Phones


Image: Andrew-Hyde/Flickr

Note: Although some quotes in this article refer to the system used in Boulder as “reverse 911,” Boulder County uses a different system that operates in a similar way. We are not referring to the EADS system that is actually named Reverse 911.

I woke up yesterday to a massive plume of smoke stretching across the sky and littering ash in my front yard. I soon found out that the so-called Fourmile Fire, a 3,500-acre brushfire, was wreaking havoc 10 miles from my home. Here’s more current news on the blaze, which authorities say is still out of control.

Like many residents here, I glued myself to the Boulder police and fire scanner throughout the day. Much of the discussion there yesterday had to do with evacuations, but rescuers seemed confused about who had evacuated, who hadn’t, and what areas were completely evacuated. It later came out that the county’s reverse 911 system had failed.

Boulder’s system, designed by a company called Everbridge, pulls information from a GIS telephone and address database to automatically notify people within a specific geographical area of an event, evacuation, or emergency mobilization. Boulder County used the system to warn residents that a massive forest fire was headed their way, and they needed to evacuate.

But instead of receiving an evacuation call, a number of residents learned that they had to leave from neighbors or, hearing the fire nearby, figured it out themselves.

Last I heard, Boulder County doesn’t know why the system failed. But, according to some comments I read on Boulder’s Daily Camera, the system has a few intrinsic flaws.

“The problem with the reverse 911 is that some people opt out of it and then say that they didn’t get a call. It happens all the time. Also, people change their phone numbers and then fail to update the 911 system…again, happens all the time. Most of the reasons for failure are, in fact, an issue with the people themselves…with landlines down, and people living in areas where there is little to no cell coverage, 911 fails are inevitable.” This comes from commenter Teledude.

Commenter mti001, who lives at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain, an evac area, writes:

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“…right after the power went out the phone rang. I answered it and the message was “this is a 911 reverse call press 1 for the message” WTF!! The key pad doesn’t work without power! I’m surprised it didn’t say “press 1 for english”! Who ever developed the software didn’t take into account that todays phones need power to operate the key pad. The message should have told us what was going on without pressing 1.”

“Something similar happened to me yesterday when the power went off.” writes Brainchild, another commenter. “The POTS (plain old telephone system) is supposed to supply its own power. But most new phones have wall warts (AC or DC adapters) so that as many as possible can be sold and plugged into a home’s jacks, without affecting how much power is sucked out of the POTS lines during ringing or whatever.”

Phones designed with AC adapters can be built lighter, smaller, and become less hot during use. So they’re great for the companies who sell them and most of the consumers who buy them. Apparently they also suck in emergency situations like the Boulder fire, where residents live away from cell phone reception and need land lines.

“It’s a good idea to have at least one jack in the house setup with an old-school trimline phone that will work whether you have power or not,” writes NoBoBears. Moabite, another commenter, agrees: “I live in the foothills, and this is PRECISELY why I have a $10 cheapo phone plugged into one of my wall jacks. If your power is out, your landline is useless unless you have an old style phone.”

In other words, if you live somewhere without cell phone reception, there’s a chance your county’s reverse 911 won’t work at all unless you have an old phone that doesn’t use an AC adapter. Not exactly savvy for a system that costs upwards of $22,000 per year.

It’s also a good reminder that it pays to be independently prepared and use your head, rather than assuming other people will come get you in time.

  • Concerned citizen

    Although you are correct that EADS owns a subsidiary named Reverse 911, the term is used generically in regards to Boulder County. Boulder County uses a system by a company called Everbridge (formerly 3N). And according to the Boulder County press release August 4, 2009 they are paying a whopping $216,000 per year. Don’t you think with that kind of price tag they could find something that works!

  • Thanks for this interesting story, I just posted about it on my blog http://allhazards.blogspot.com/2010/09/reverse-911-problems-with-boulder.html

  • Drea

    Concerned–Dang, I had no idea they were using an even more expensive system. Thanks for clarifying. Last I heard, they’re telling people to use Twitter instead. Now *that’s* a cheap alternative.

  • Joe

    You can sign up for alerts to multiple phones, text message, e-mail at boulderoem.com.