Faster Notification System Sought in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

The city of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is looking into a faster way to contact its residents in emergencies, according to a report Sunday by Brittany Wallman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

City officials acknowledged that their communications systems were lacking when they tried to alert city residents to potentially tainted water after a water transmission line broke June 21.

As a result, officials are exploring speedier notification systems. They are also talking with Comcast cable about using a scrolling message on TV screens — similar to weather warnings. The police department is exploring increasing the number of phone lines available to its auto-caller.

"We did everything we could humanly do to get the word out," Assistant City Manager Greg Kisela told commissioners at a July 1 meeting.

Suggestions as well as criticism have poured in from residents and water users affected by the temporary water outage and two-day boil-water requirement. Many of them were more upset about the communications failure than the possibility of unclean water.

"I'd like to think of it more as a wake-up call," Commissioner Dean Trantalis told Wallman.

As politicians, city commissioners already are familiar with "robo-callers," used to call voters with recorded messages. Those systems are much quicker than the city's, which can call only 2,800 to 3,000 people an hour, according to police spokesman Det. Mike Reed.

One service the city will consider is headed by Bob Poe, former chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.

Poe is now president of Emergency Communications Network of Ormond Beach, whose CodeRed system requires no purchase of technology. Subscribers buy time on the phone lines.

The system is used by Boca Raton to send emergency messages to residents and by A Child Is Missing — a Fort Lauderdale-based nonprofit — to find kids and seniors and to issue sexual predator information.

Poe said he called Commissioner Cindi Hutchinson to tell her about CodeRed, which can call 60,000 people an hour.

When the water transmission line burst, the city used its existing system to call water customers in the city, Oakland Park, Wilton Manors, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Port Everglades, Sea Ranch Lakes and unincorporated areas. But the system was so slow it was still calling residents and businesses days after the boil-water alert was issued.

Water tests the first day showed bacteria in five of 30 testing locations, but the water tested clean the very next day.

Not having heard the news, many residents woke up that Saturday and drank the water. Clifford King said drank some with his morning vitamin and later that day suffered stomach pains and intestinal problems.

In an e-mail to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that he agreed could be published, he said that he was "one of the dummies that didn't hear about the water being off."

He wondered what would have happened had it been a more serious emergency.

"Thank goodness it wasn't a terrorist attack," he wrote.

City officials reported that they contacted TV and radio stations, newspapers, and put the information on the city Web site, brought in employees to answer phones and used the city's automated caller. But this wasn't enough, apparently.

Some residents who tried call the utility department's 24-hour hotline couldn't get through, according to Wallman's report. Or if they did, they were transferred to a voice mail account that wasn't accepting messages. Then they were hung up on.

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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