The D.C. Text Alert system was turned on a year ago to "provide immediate notification and update information during a major crisis or emergency." Nearly 15,000 residents have signed up in the past year to receive the free D.C. government alerts through e-mail and on their cell phones, pagers and BlackBerrys.
But a review shows that "emergency" is in the eye of the bureaucrat pressing the "send" button. Alerts have been sent frequently, announcing news of minor power outages, fog warnings and even impending thunderstorms. But when there was a real emergency -- the bombings in London last week -- the text alert was sent almost five hours after the event.
The alert on the attacks was sent at 10:21 a.m. Washington time, after the morning rush hour and 44 minutes after Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) issued his own news release on the events in London. In addition, some of the alerts, including those that went to cell phones, did not mention London.
"I'm mystified why this alert system would wait five hours," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over the Emergency Management Agency, which runs the text alert system. "When you have four bombs go off in the London transit system and the D.C. police chief holds over the entire midnight shift, it is clearly big news."
"It was definitely something that people who would be using Metrorail would want to know about before going into the system," said Dennis Jaffe, a Bloomingdale resident and chairman of the Citizen Advisory Committee for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' transportation planning board.
Barbara Childs-Pair, director of the Emergency Management Agency, said the system worked as planned.
"We were waiting to hear from Homeland Security, attempting to find out if there was a credible threat to the District of Columbia," she said. "We had no reason to put out an alert. If you were looking at the news, you knew about the London bombing."
The mayor said that if the District had been bombed, he was sure the alert system would have been more responsive.
"Text alert is a new thing, and we're out there on the cutting edge of pushing a new technology that is very, very important," Williams said. "Obviously we need to work it, shape it and adjust it so it's working best for our citizens, and that's what we're doing."
If there is a major attack or emergency in the District, the city also has the capacity to call every land-line phone in the city to give instructions or information, Childs-Pair said.
Another criticism of the system is that it sends out many alerts that do not appear to be a "major crisis or emergency," the definition used on the agency's D.C. Text Alert Web site.
Since Jan. 10, the agency has sent alerts to all 15,000 users, in addition to dozens of other alerts sent to smaller groups divided by neighborhood or school. They included information about storms, road closures and a major water main break in May. The agency did not immediately provide the total number of alerts sent since the $200,000 system started last July.
But many are like Alert 401: "1233 & 1205 Brentwood Rd., NE -- DMV offices closed for 2 hrs. due to power outages" or Alert 470: "Power outage in the vicinity of Madison & Kansas Ave., NW. PEPCO is responding."
Others are obvious or unhelpful, such as Alert 399 sent in the middle of a storm: "Sporadic flooding, downed trees, and power outages due to weather" or Alert 370, which was sent out at 6:40 on a January morning, warning of a "wind chill advisory."
"With so many messages about inconsequential things, people might decide it is not important to check," said Fred Milar, who served for years on the D.C. emergency planning committee and now lives in Arlington. He suggests that the District invest in a cheaper, decidedly more low-tech warning device: sirens.
Childs-Pair said the system is not crying wolf. "Certainly not," she said. "The volume of calls I receive saying thank you greatly outnumbers the complaints. We make people aware of public information."
The system soon will allow users to opt out of getting certain alerts, such as those regarding weather or traffic, according to the agency.
Mendelson said he is not so worried about the number of alerts as long as the system handles the big ones properly and promptly.
"I don't know the harm in sending messages about the relatively minor stuff," he said. "This is not the same as interrupting a TV show about two houses that lose power. These are people who subscribe to the service."