Emergency alerts can cause danger themselves

Today I got a UGA e-mail that heralds a new emergency announcement system. It is called UGA Alert, and the specific implementation is a horribly bad idea. In fact, it could actually exacerbate dangers that it is intended to warn about.

It is intended to provide new methods of alerting the university community of emergencies. UGA already sends out announcements by e-mail, but now they are adding an automated system of outgoing telephone announcements. The UGA Alert website allows employees and students to register up to three phone numbers to receive recorded announcements.

This is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard. If this comes into widespread use, this means that thousands of phone numbers will be dialed and connected within a short amount of time. Since mobile phone use is widespread, most of these calls will probably go to them. Then mobile cell sites and mobile switches that are already operating near capacity on normal days will be flooded during an emergency. Cells downtown, around campus, and all over town will run out of capacity. It would be much more appropriate to launch a system that only sends SMS text messages; this new system sends those, but only in addition to a phone call.

And if you're a victim of some kind of emergency, guess what? You just might need to make a call from your mobile phone, but you won't be able to. In the name of informing a large number of people about an emergency, the UGA Alert system might keep you from calling for emergency help. Exactly when you will be most likely to need to use your phone, you will be least likely to get a call through.

Please do not register for UGA Alert. This is obviously an overreaction to the April tragedy at Virginia Tech.


David Coursey said...

If only it worked that well. I was visiting with a public official who owns such a system.

His usage shows that the local telco switch swamps at about 200-300 calls per minute. Further, only about 40 percent (I am doing this from memory) actually reach a human being in something like real time. Most calls get voice mail. The message is left, but may not be delivered anytime soon.

If the system is really going to call all three numbers for, say, 10,000 people (30,000 calls) at 200-per-minute the emergency alert won't be delivered for more than 2 hours and most of those won't reach a human. These "Reverse 911" systems seem much better than they turn out to be.

Polusplanchnos said...


Flannery O'Clobber said...

One correction: the system was already in the works before Va Tech, mostly because parents of students had continually asked UGA about something similar.