Montgomery County officials say they want access to a federal alert system with a reach far beyond the County’s current system.
The County Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security is overseeing a federal application to gain access to the Wireless Emergency Alerts system administered through the Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
According to OEMHS director Dr. Earl Stoddard, Montgomery County may become one of the first localities, if not the first, in Maryland to enter the system, which allows government officials to notify residents about imminent threats to safety, such as hurricanes and tornadoes.
Stoddard said the system would allow County officials to reach well more than the roughly 250,000 people who are already signed up for the county’s current system Alert Montgomery, though he did not have an exact number.
He said he expects U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials will grant the county access to the WEA system by this fall.
According to Stoddard, it should cost the County “nothing” other than staff labor because it’s a federally-run system.
Stoddard said an outage of the 911 system, like the one from last week that resulted in two deaths of people waiting for paramedics, would count as such an emergency situation.
He said he expected the federal government to approve of Montgomery County’s request by this fall.
“We’re in the process of becoming an approved sender,” he said, noting employees of his department still have to meet again with Department of Homeland Security officials.
Gaining that access “would likely be helpful to us in the future should something like this should happen again,” added Stoddard, referring to the 911 outage.
Internal and external investigations are underway to determine the cause of the fatal July 10-11 outage of the 911 system.
Stoddard said the federal government negotiated with phone providers to use cell towers in a specific area to push out messages to every phone receiving service by those towers, land lines and cellular phones alike.
The only way a cell phone user could not receive those messages is by manually blocking them.
“We consider this to be the most rigorous alerting system available to us,” said Stoddard. “However, because it has such great power, we have a great deal of responsibility to make sure that we have the processes well developed with our federal partners to use this effectively.”
OEMHS officials would send an alert message to a department within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Someone there would have to approve of the message in a short period of time and then blast it out.
Stoddard said the alert could be “geographically restricted to portions of the county.”
“We can also use the whole county. The term that’s usually used is the nuclear option for messaging,” he said, noting the messages would have to inform people about a “life or death situation,” not something less pressing like a road closure.
“It would have to be an imminent threat to life and limb for us to feel comfortable using this system,” he said. “It is under extreme events that we would use this system.”
The application started before Stoddard joined the OEMHS staff and he noted his department has completed “the biggest steps in the process” so far.
“So we’ve received our authorization code which means we have the code now to enter into the system,” he said, though adding there are still “some additional layers of training” members of his office will need before they can send messages.
Wireless Emergency Alerts sent through county-based cell towers could also ping residents of nearby jurisdictions who receive phone service from cell towers located in the county.
“This WEA system would allow us to exceed that by significant margin and reach almost everyone in the county,” said Stoddard. “This kind of system is the best kind of system to notify the public directly about significant threats exposed to our residents.”
According to Council member Roger Berliner (D-1), preventing outages of the 911 system is his top priority for emergency management but he also supports accessing the WEA system after talking to Stoddard Tuesday morning.
“My bottom line is this can never happen again. And whatever it takes to make sure this never happens again is something I’m sure all my colleagues are committed to. We shouldn’t be worrying about the back-up” plan, he said.
However, Berliner added he did think it is “prudent” for the county to work with the federal government on the Wireless Emergency Alert system to notify residents about major, life-threatening issues.
“But the bottom line is we should never send such a message about 911,” he said. “911 must be secure.”
Meanwhile, other County officials are pressing ahead with three investigations about what happened the night of July 10 into the early morning hours of July 11, when the 911 system shut off for two hours and two people in the County died while waiting for emergency responders.
County Executive Ike Leggett said Chief Administrative Officer Timothy Firestine is in charge of the investigations.
“He wants to bring some outside support to be a part of the evaluation,” said Leggett, noting the “objective is to have an outside analysis but I can’t tell you when that will be completed.”
“We want to make sure we know precisely what happened, why it happened and how we can prevent this for the future,” said Leggett.
According to Leggett, costs associated with the investigations will “probably” come from within the existing County budget, though he may seek supplemental funds or reimbursement if necessary.
Firestine said there are two investigations underway.
One is a broad overview about risk assessment that was slated to start as early as this month, approved before the 911 outage took place. The other is about technical issues that specifically contributed to the 911 outage, he said.
“The consultant doing the broader vulnerability/risk assessment is SC&H Group from northern Virginia. Originally, we had planned to do a risk assessment of the 911 system during FY2017. It was on our work program scheduled to begin during the first quarter,” said Firestine.
“The firm with experience in 911 systems is not yet under contract so I cannot give you their name. As soon as that happens I can identify the firm,” he added.
Firestine explained the consultants will use their expertise “to confirm that when they look at what happened in terms of the outage, we have the right cause.”
That would be followed by an assessment “across the whole 911 system to see if there are any other points of vulnerability within the system.”
Meanwhile, internally, Executive Office members are finalizing their own review of the sequence of events that caused the outage.
Firestine said he supports Stoddard pursuing access to the federal WEA system though, like Berliner, he said the point is to not have to rely on a Plan B in lieu of 911.
“Any system that we can put in place in the middle of the night to bring to people’s attention to an outage is the way to go because, remember, this was between 11 and 1 o’clock. A lot of people are asleep. You’ve got to come up with a system that will somehow give them that warning and wake that up,” he said.
With upgrades to the primary 911 facility due to be completed, Firestine said that should make the 911 system more reliable as the outage happened while the County operated with the system running in an alternate site.
“One of the things we’re looking at is having two HVAC units, at least for the alternative center so if one goes down, you’ve got another,” he said.
During the past week, Firestine said dealing with the 911 outage has been his top priority.
“I’d say it’s the number one thing I’m focused on, just trying to get us sort of organized so we can ensure confidence in the public that we won’t have an outage in our 911 system,” he said. “Just looking at the sequence of events that caused this outage, the probability of it occurring was just the stars aligned and you’ve got a problem and we don’t want that to be the way the system works.”