Reverse 911 System Confusion Could have Caused a Chemical Disaster

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Reverse 911 systems have been making their way to hundreds of US cities in the last few years. The ability to potentially prevent or reverse harmful situations has caused a wave effect throughout the nation.

For an Oregon facility plant, however, the reverse 911 system did not work as planned. The problem was not with the system; it involved a lack of communication with the city's Bureau of Emergency Communications.

The plant is Precision Castparts, a manufacturer of aircraft components. The facility accidentally released a chemical cloud of hydrofluoric acid, nitrogen dioxide and nitric acid fumes. The disaster began with a power outage which caused the plant to switch to a backup generator. Once the generator kicked in, the facility experienced a failure in the equipment responsible for pollution control. At this point a chemical cloud was released.

Under normal circumstances, the reverse 911 system would have been deployed and nearby residents instructed to stay inside their homes. Official and firefighters actually thought the warning system was active and working and notifying people in the area. The system they implemented is known as FirstCall, which can be programmed to call, email and text people located in a certain area to warn them of imminent dangers or hazards requiring their immediate attention.

Unfortunately, the supervisor at the Bureau of Emergency Communications who was overseeing the system was unaware that the FirstCall warning system had been implemented six months prior and as a result he called the police attempting to activate the old system.

The miscommunication seemed to be the result of a lack of communication between the agencies and too many leaders not knowing what each bureau was doing. This confusion could have put the lives of thousands of people in grave danger. It was later determined from a report issued by the city that dispatchers on call that night had no protocols in place detailing what to do in case of an emergency. The incident revealed the unpreparedness of the facility to launch the reverse 911 system correctly and efficiently.

Thankfully, the residents living near the plant received word from other sources to stay indoors. The incident also happened overnight which posed less of a risk. The actual chemical cloud did result in injuries to two firefighters and two plant workers, who suffered from minor respiratory issues.

Unfortunately, it took a disaster to reveal the lack of organization within the reverse 911 system in Portland. Thankfully, for Portland residents, a disaster was averted and the power of reverse 911 will now be implemented correctly to protect them in the future.