Emergency Systems Break Down in Two Bay Area Counties

Within 24 hours, two Bay Area counties experienced some sort of breakdown in their emergency systems.

In Contra Costa County, the gas leak in Alamo on Danville Boulevard Wednesday spurred the Sheriff’s Office to send out evacuation alerts – but they were only supposed impact a three-square block area.

Instead, text messages were sent countywide. The county has used a system called Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) since 2011. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), IPAWS is a modernized alert and warning system that will help save time in events of crisis or disaster.

Public safety officials are able to write a message which is then authenticated by the IPAWS system before blasted to a specific location. In an email to NBC Bay Area, Jimmy Lee, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, said a change in the IPAWS system was to blame for the mass alert to the county. More specifically, he said someone who tried to block the alert from going out was using outdated code language.

Apparently, IPAWS had made changes that Lee said county officials were never made aware of. Meantime, in San Mateo County, the “seven-digit emergency lines” used as a back-up for 9-1-1 system were down for about half an hour Thursday morning. Gordon Helms, Deputy Director of Operations for the county, said there was a component failure in the public branch exchanged located in Redwood City, bringing down lines for county agencies like the Sheriff’s Office. “9-1-1 is routed through multiple locations,” Helms explained. “What it affected was the seven-digit emergency numbers that we’re required by law to have as basically a back-up to the 9-1-1 system.”

The county took a few hours to finish repairs on the system to correct audio problems for calls getting transferred into the dispatch center. “A system like that, there should be multiple fail-safes,” said Steven Sabol of Hillsborough.

As for cause, Helms said the county is looking into it but did mention there’s the “heat and age” of technology, adding the phone system technology was last updated two years ago. Bert Hildebrand, the communications director in Santa Clara County, said what was formerly known as the seven-digit emergency lines was also once mandated by the state.

He said the county is no longer reimbursed by the state for providing the service. Hildebrand also said that Santa Clara County has already pre-planned for if the non-911 emergency lines go down, rerouting them with call forwarding already set up.

To get it all back up and running if there was ever a disruption, he said, would take just a few minutes.

For Edita Horoupian, a mother of two who just moved to Belmont from San Jose, this is unacceptable. She said she has called 9-1-1 four times in recent memory, and each time, she got a busy signal. “It was busy. I got a busy signal more than one time and I was just thinking, what if this was something very important? I was very disappointed.”

For Horoupian, it’s even less acceptable in the Bay Area. “Come on, we live in Silicon Valley, right? There’s all these great companies and everyday they advance technology!” Horoupian said.

“We should be safe at all times. That’s why we’re paying so much taxes and all this stuff is so expensive, to afford living here. So you kind of want to have certain expectations.”

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