Long-honed alert system passes its test run

By Joseph P. Kahn and Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / May 5, 2010

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Donald McGough, who runs Boston’s emergency preparedness office, was at lunch in West Roxbury Saturday when a colleague phoned with an urgent message. The huge pipe that carries clean water to Boston and its suburbs had ruptured, and up to 2 million people needed to be told to boil their tap water before drinking it.

This was the sort of event McGough and his colleagues have repeatedly trained for, and they sprang into action. Within minutes, they had joined a sprawling network of state, regional, and local agencies attempting to alert the diverse citizenry of a densely populated eastern Massachusetts.

Over the next several hours, McGough and his colleagues faced a test of the emergency procedures they have designed and debated for years, and by most accounts, the system worked well.

Reverse-911 calls were sent to 150,000 Greater Boston households that had either registered with the city or had their numbers culled from phone company listings. In Swampscott, one of some 30 communities threat ened with unsafe drinking water, phone calls, e-mails, and instant messages reached 5,000 of the town’s 5,500 households and businesses in under five minutes.

Flashing signs along state roadways alerted motorists to the threat. Community health centers were notified, volunteers spreading the news to local residents and using many different languages to do so. Media outlets quickly seized upon the story and broadcast it widely. Social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter were mobilized, yet old-fashioned shoe leather was employed, too, with police officers roaming neighborhood streets with bullhorns to get word to anyone within earshot.

“We were pushing messages out to all key agencies, and quickly,’’ McGough said yesterday, as he and other emergency officials oversaw another series of emergency messages, alerting residents that water was now safe to drink but that pipes in homes and offices should first be flushed out by running water.

The emergency communications were important, public health officials said, because drinking untreated water can cause intestinal illnesses — even though, in this case, later tests showed no unusual contamination in the system.

But the boil-water order also provided an unplanned opportunity to test the emergency communication and management systems that officials have been planning and revising for years, and that could someday be needed for a far more disruptive event, such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said the water crisis provided an unusually valuable exercise in “preparing for the big one, a bigger attack.’’ He noted that his agency has a lot of experience communicating about events such as blizzards and hurricanes, but less experience with events that affect such a large number of people, occur without warning, and require immediate action. The boil-water order, he said, “compressed everything into a short time frame.’’

There were certainly glitches and complaints, and no formal assessment of the system has been conducted, but government officials and crisis experts said they were generally reassured by how well things went.

“This was a good validation of the communications work done in the field of public health over the past two years,’’ said Dr. Paul Biddinger, associate director of Harvard’s Center for Public Health Preparedness.

Biddinger said that as recently two years ago, it would have taken significantly longer to spread the word about an emergency. Since that time, he said, the state’s Health and Homeland Alert Network system was established, and that network generated thousands of calls and e-mails last weekend in what Biddinger called “probably its most widespread use’’ to date locally.

On the Tufts University campus in Medford, faculty, staff, and students received automated text and e-mail alerts as soon as campus officials became aware of the water crisis. Patrick Meier, a Tufts doctoral student who specializes in crisis mapping, said the emergency communications network, established in the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, had only been used once before, during a campuswide blackout last fall.

“It’s good we’re using mobile technologies, which is always best practice in crises like these,’’ said Meier, who assisted relief agencies working in Haiti after the January earthquake.

Generally, he said, people living through a disaster are reassured if they have real-time, two-way communication, he said, even if help is not immediately on the way. But knowing that some affected populations — the elderly, perhaps — may be hard to reach dictates using multiple methods of communication.

“By definition, you don’t rely on one source of information,’’ he said. “You need distributed multimedia dissemination.’’

Crises like the water crisis not only threaten public health, but also public confidence, and the last several days also served as a test of how well officials could contain potential panic.

“Lots of events raise our anxiety about vulnerability, whether it’s a terror scare in New York or the minor water disaster in Massachusetts,’’ said Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School .

“We’re reminded that even under the protection of our great cities and our sense of safety in them, there’s always a potential threat,’’ he said. It’s up to authorities to reassure people that everything’s okay, he said, but it still takes time for people to “go back into balance’’ following a disruption of this magnitude.

Like many of the nearly 2 million Massachusetts residents affected by the crisis, David Meerman Scott was home Saturday afternoon in Lexington, drinking a glass of tap water, when he got an automated call from his town. He got another call later that day, and one more on Sunday. That, combined with what he saw on television and heard on the radio from public officials like Governor Deval Patrick, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and MWRA executive director Frederick A. Laskey, reassured him the situation was under control.

“It seemed to me as if there was a crisis-communication plan in place at the MWRA, and that it had been coordinated quite effectively’’ with multiple agencies, said Scott, a marketing specialist and author of “The New Rules of Marketing & PR’’ (2007). He drew a contrast between how local officials handled this crisis and Toyota’s recent woes or British Petroleum’s response to the Louisiana oil spill, both public relations debacles.

But not everyone is ready to give officials an A-plus. In Newton, Carolyn Shears said she turned off her TV and radio Saturday to catch up on her reading. No call came from the city of Newton, and consequently, she didn’t learn about the water crisis until Sunday.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren said that funds for the emergency-notification system were cut before he took office this year, but he noted that school families did get calls, and he said he has budgeted for a new citywide system, which he expects to be in place in a matter of weeks.

Swampscott town administrator Andrew Maylor said that, while he was pleased with the overall performance of his town’s new crisis-communications system, created just a few months ago, the water crisis did expose some gaps.

For example, residents of one condominium complex in Swampscott were not in the phone-alert database because the complex’s street name is not on the town’s list of streets, and therefore did not receive the initial calls. Also, because the crisis arose on a weekend, Swampscott’s municipal website wasn’t updated as quickly as it would have been on a weekday.

Even while the crisis was still unfolding, Maylor designated an official to monitor the town’s website on weekends, and added contact information for the condominium complex to the town’s emergency-alert system.

“It’s helped us shake out some of the bugs in the system,’’ he said.

McGough, the Boston official, said state and local officials will likely meet to go over what worked well and what didn’t in their crisis-response exchanges.

“We’ve gotten very positive feedback from the public,’’ he said. “But we’re always trying to learn what we could do better.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at Don Aucoin can be reached at

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