When it began in 1991, the Contra Costa Community Alert Network was a noble idea. The plan was to automatically notify residents living near industrial areas about chemical spills, toxic releases, or refinery fires. It seemed like an idea whose time had come. Contra Costa County, home to four major oil refineries, two huge chemical plants, and several smaller chemical companies, was even then infamous for its industrial accidents.
The phone system was designed to call residents who live near an accident, let them know what happened, and alert them to remain inside until called again with an all-clear report. It could make up to two hundred warning calls a minute, beginning with the homes nearest the accident, and was known as the Community Alert Network, or CAN, after the New York firm of the same name that administers the system. The system is one part of a larger countywide hazardous incident alert system that also includes warnings on local television channels and radio stations, sirens, and e-mail alerts.
But while the system's purpose was admirable, it was plagued with problems. Sometimes calls were made to people in the wrong communities. At other times, calls weren't made until long after the emergencies were over. In 1999, when a fire broke out at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, people in Martinez were mistakenly called. Two years ago, following accidental smoke and chemical releases from the Equilon refinery in Martinez, warning calls were made to Richmond residents.
It wasn't until last year that the full gravity of the system's problems became known. That's when the Contra Costa grand jury released a scathing report titled "Kick the CAN," which examined eleven different emergency incidents between 2000 and 2002. Although county officials requested that 99,888 homes be contacted during those emergencies, only 64,578 calls were even attempted. And about one in five of the calls that were made never got through because of busy signals, no ring, or other problems. The system's overall contact rate was only about one in four, but grand jurors couldn't even celebrate that, because some of the calls that did make it through were only received after the all-clear was declared. In short, grand jurors concluded the system was a mess.
Now, county officials are trying to untangle this mess and make the system work properly. "People tell us they didn't get the warnings, the sirens weren't heard, and they rely on a phone call they may or may not get," says County Supervisor Gayle B. Uilkema. "What we're trying to do is evaluate whether or not we can come up with a meaningful system. We want people to come forward and tell us what they want and need."
Supporters hope that some of the problems will be solved by changing the way county and industry officials use the system. But officials face more than just logistical challenges. They also have to ensure that the warnings come in a language that listeners understand. Contra Costa County is home to one million people, including many recent immigrants, who speak 26 different languages. For many, warnings in English simply don't work.
"There have been changes in terms of the ethnic makeup of the county in recent years," Uilkema says. "Lots of Laotians have moved in, along with Cambodians. There's older Filipino residents who don't speak English, and many Hispanics have indicated they want to be notified in Spanish. I just don't know if it's possible to do the notifications in the languages people want."
After all, the system is only as smart as the information relayed to the network. The system can be activated via phone or by computer by county officials, or by supervisors at the facility where the accident occurs. In either case, officials need to convey information about what kind of accident has occurred, in which direction the wind is blowing, and just what communities need to be alerted.
Many of the problems identified by the grand jury stemmed from errors that occurred when humans directly conveyed information to CAN, although grand jurors were unable to determine whether the errors occurred locally or in New York.
"In some cases, county officials are choosing to call CAN instead of using the computer, and when you do that, there's a chance for error," says Tony Semenza, a former chief of emergency services for Chevron's Richmond refinery who now works with industry, the county, and the community as executive director of the nonprofit Community Awareness Emergency Response. "I'm encouraging everybody to use the computer, because every time something goes wrong it costs us in credibility and the reputation of the system, and people just say, 'Hell, the whole system is no good.'"
Ken Baechel, president of Community Alert Network, defends his company's system. "A much smaller percent of what we were blamed for was actually our fault," he said.
Still, complaints about the phone network are as multiethnic as the county itself. So far, Contra Costa County's growing Laotian community has made the most noise about problems with the system. Officials have responded with a pilot program funded by $140,000 in grants from state and local air quality boards. Laotian residents in Contra Costa living near chemical plants and refineries will now get calls in four different Laotian languages: Lao, Mien, Khmu, and Hmong. The county has a team of Laotian outreach workers who have helped make informational videos in all four languages. These workers also are visiting all of the county's Laotian homes, collecting data and talking to residents about what to do when a hazardous incident occurs.
"Right now, we can dedicate five of the phone lines to the various Laotian languages," says Michael Kent, the county's hazardous materials ombudsman. "We want to determine if this is a model we can expand to other languages and see if it's cost-effective."
Kent believes the phone alert system is essential to the emergency network, and should be fixed. "Sirens give you minimal information," he says. "They just tell you something is going on. With the phone system, we can change the calls and tailor it to a specific incident."
Nor is the county limiting its emergency preparedness ethnic outreach to the telephone system. To inform residents about the emergency alert system as a whole, Kent says the county has created refrigerator magnets in nine different languages and distributed them to communities all over Contra Costa.
A new idea also is in the works. Because telenovelas -- soap operas -- are so popular in the Latino community, Kent and others believe a soap opera-style video may just be the way to inform local Latinos about emergency preparedness for toxic accidents.
"We're doing a Spanish telenovela video about the emergency warning system," Kent says. "We're going to come up with some soap opera story to convey ideas about 'shelter in place.' Maybe something like two people fall in love during a shelter-in-place incident."
When and if county officials can surmount the technical and language challenges of the system, there will be one last detail they'll have to figure out; what to do when families move. "Every month the CAN database is updated and there are twenty thousand changes a month," Kent explains. "People move, phones get disconnected."
When a Hmong family moves out of county and, say, a Guatemalan clan moves in, the system will automatically revert to English messages. But changing those messages to fit the language needs of the new household is a more complex endeavor, he says. "We're going to have to figure out the best way to do that."
Still, Kent remains optimistic. "There are a lot of people making a sincere effort to do the right thing and trying to respond to the community's needs," he says. "If this was easy to do, we would have done it already."
Because of the serious problems identified by the grand jury, supervisors have recently opened up the bid process to see if there are other telephone providers around the country who can do a better job than Community Alert Network. Supporters say it's a system worth keeping -- especially since the phone alert network's annual price tag of about $100,000 is almost entirely paid for by an industry tax.
Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, an environmental justice organization, says the challenges for the system are great but well worth meeting. "In spite of the problems," he says, "it's better than having nothing in place."
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