Sonic-booms reveal bugs in ALERT system

Lahar. Check.

Earthquake. Check.

Sonic boom? Hummm.

Before recently launching an automated alert system, Pierce County’s emergency management staff members talked through incidents that would prompt them to send out messages.

Sonic booms didn’t come up.

But the staffers faced that situation Tuesday, when two of the blasts rocked Pierce County after a pair of military jets broke the sound barrier while responding to a security breech during President Barack Obama’s visit to Seattle.

They huddled to discuss whether to send out an alert concerning the back-to-back booms and what to say. In the meantime, the county’s 911 operators were swamped with hundreds of calls from scared or curious residents.

The agency ended up sending an informational message to 1,713 residents who had signed up for community alerts through the Pierce County ALERT system. But the message wasn’t published until about 90 minutes after the F-15s zoomed overhead.

That’s not ideal, said Steve Bailey, director of Pierce County Emergency Management.

“It was a learning moment for us,” he said this week. “This is new to us as well.”

The incident provided the agency with a chance to talk about when to send out alerts, what kind of alerts to release and to become more comfortable with giving residents some information even when they don’t have all the answers.

Bailey said the goal is to dispatch emergency messages within 15 to 30 minutes of an incident. The idea is to keep people from calling 911 to get information and overwhelming the emergency dispatch centers, which happened for nearly 30 minutes Tuesday.

“It is a very powerful tool,” Bailey said of the new alert system. “We are creating expectations that we need to meet and are going to meet.”

The department launched the web-based system in mid-July and, so far, more than 2,400 people have registered to receive alerts through automated phone calls, text messages, e-mails and faxes. The system’s $930,000 cost over the next five years will be largely paid for through 911 taxes.

The system issues two types of warnings:

“Emergency” for possible life-and-death situations such as a lahar, earthquake or missing person. They can be dispatched immediately and 24 hours a day.

“It would be the priority for us to get the information out,” said Sheri Badger, spokeswoman for Pierce County Emergency Management.

“Community” for sharing information about traffic tie-ups, severe weather warnings and other lower-level incidents, such as Tuesday’s sonic booms. These alerts are considered less urgent and are sent out between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m.

“It’s more informational than timely,” Badger said.

Officials have sent out seven messages – four community alerts and three emergency alerts – since July 17. The three emergency alerts were dispatched Wednesday and Thursday for a missing 16-year-old developmentally challenged girl in the South Hill area.

Everyone who signs up for the system receives emergency messages for their locations. Community alerts are optional.

In most cases, the incident commander for an ongoing situation involving police or firefighters asks Emergency Management to send out a message, Badger said. An on-duty staff member works with the commander to write the message and decide who will receive it.

During the day, a manager would approve the alert; overnight, it could be sent without the review.

In addition to the ALERT system, emergency messages can be sent via automated calls using the 911 database. The calls go to landline phones for listed and unlisted numbers.

For community alerts, in addition to the optional ALERT message, emergency management staff members could use the landline numbers listed a database of white and Yellow Pages listings, Badger said. To date, the department has not used that database.

On Tuesday, the two military jets left Portland to intercept a floatplane that had entered restricted airspace around the president who was in Seattle. The jets left at 1:38 p.m. and flew at top speed. The 10-minute flight caused two sonic booms that rattled thousands of Pierce County residents.

That included the staff members at Emergency Management. While some tried to figure out what happened others stepped outside to see if any column of smoke indicated a major explosion.

Bailey said he didn’t immediately relalize the blasts were sonic booms.

“We just don’t get them often enough,” he said.

Within about 10 minutes, staff members knew the blasts did not come from a major incident in Pierce County. When they determined the source of the booms they sent an alert to the agency’s network of fire departments, law enforcement agencies and hospitals.

A group of staff members then huddled to discuss whether to send out a community-level message on the new ALERT system. They talked about whether such a message was appropriate and, if so, who should get it and what should it say.

In the end, at 3:12 p.m., they sent a message that said, “Two sonic booms this afternoon were caused by military jets breaking the sound barrier. 911 centers were temporarily overwhelmed with calls and are now functioning normally.”

During the incident, Bailey said, he talked to staff members about putting out some information quickly even though they might not know the definitive answer to what caused the booms.

“Sometimes no information is information,” he said later. “The sonic boom created a situation where information was key.”

That’s part of the learning curve, he said, adding staff members need to be comfortable with relaying what they know and don’t know.

“You certainly want to be spot-on when you use it,” Bailey said of the system. “People are seeing now that there is a button to be pushed and people have to be comfortable doing that.”

Over the next several months, the agency will be evaluating when it sent out messages and how things went.

They’ll be learning along the way, Bailey said.

“I see us as really improving the system,” he said. “It will be very positive for the citizens of Pierce County to get them important information.”