65 percent of residents hung up on reverse-911 in Conn.

The message asked the recipient to press one on his or her phone to hear the emergency message, but 650 people hung up without even pressing the key

By Amanda Pinto
The New Haven Register

WEST HAVEN, Conn. — When fire officials recently used the city's new reverse-911 system to send an alert about flame-suppressing chemical foam that had spilled into the Oyster River, more than half of those called hung up without listening to the emergency message.

City officials are now looking to change their automated-calling policies to try to make sure more people receive vital information.

The Aug. 31 message told those who came into contact with the chemical to wash their hands because it could cause skin irritation, but 650 of the 1,000 area residents who received the alert hung up seconds into the call, Emergency Management Director Scott Schwartz said.

The message asked that the recipient press one on his or her phone to hear the emergency message, but 650 people hung up without even pressing the key. It's a figure Schwartz called "astronomical."

"We're looking to use this system strictly for emergencies, and if people are hanging up when we call them, it's a detriment to them, as well as their neighbors and anybody that might be coming to help them," Schwartz said.

West Shore Deputy Chief Patrick Pickering said it was "disheartening and concerning," that more people didn't listen to the call, and added that he thought people with caller ID may not have picked up the phone when they saw an unfamiliar number. He and Schwartz said they were working on increasing public awareness about the system, which is state funded, and supplied by software firm Everbridge to municipalities across the state.

It replaced a more costly system July 1, Schwartz said. It is different than the previous system because it begins with a message from the Department of Homeland Security, rather than the voice of a city official, he said.

He said he was looking into whether more people would stay on the phone if the initial voice was his or that of another official in West Haven.

While the emergency arm of the system will be used only for matters of immediate need — like chemical spills, explosions or storms — Everbridge also provides another automated-calling service that allows city departments to put out public service announcements about non-emergency issues.

Since the foam incident, and a mistake last week that led to a storm alert meant only for senior citizens at the Morrissey Manor and the Baybrook Arms apartments being sent to about 700 residents citywide, Mayor John M. Picard said he has discussed putting controls in place to "ensure (the system) is not overused."

"The mayor has really clamped it down and said we really need to use this for emergencies only," Schwartz said. "It used to be the Board of Education was sending out messages every other day, and people get very numb to that."

Picard said he was working on a procedure to prevent the system from being used for "benign" messages, thereby letting residents know that any such call from the city is an urgent one.

Schwartz said he is working with Everbridge to allow residents to add cell phone numbers on the Web, so they can receive alerts even if they are away from home.

Francis Willett, director of services delivery for Everbridge, said more than 105 local municipalities use the platform, and that the opening message is different for emergency and non-emergency calls.

He said the greeting is "critical" to whether residents stay on the line to listen to the message, and that in towns with good promotional programs, more than 80-90 percent of those called listen to the alert.

Rick Fontana, deputy director of emergency management operations in New Haven, said the city has seen an improvement in the number of people who have listened all the way through a call in the last few years.

"You have to market to people and have them understand," he said. "It's the nature of the beast, some people (couldn't) care less and some people want the information. ... I think it's marketing to people that this is information that could be a life-saving phone call."

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