Project Snafu: Residents Go Rabid Over Midnight Calls

By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2006-04-25 Print this article Print

Lake County, Ohio, placed 5,600 automated phone calls to residents in the wee hours about a rabies-vaccine program. Here's what you can learn from the gaffe.

THE PROBLEM: The emergency management agency for Lake County, Ohio, mistakenly placed 5,600 automated phone calls to area residents between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. on April 13 and 14 about its rabies-vaccine program for wild raccoons, after a key component in its alerting system failed.

Needless to say, county officials quickly caught wind of the glitch from citizens who were awakened by the rabies announcement and flooded Lake County's switchboard with complaints.

Larry D. Greene, director of the Lake County Emergency Management Agency, says the system was set to make approximately 66,000 calls on the 13th during daylight or early evening hours.

The calls played a brief recorded message from the Lake County General Health District to notify people of an annual effort to distribute anti-rabies vaccine pellets for wild raccoons to eat.

The county's Reverse 911 system, made by Indianapolis-based Sigma Communications, is used to issue such public service announcements and alerts about impending natural disasters or other emergencies.

But earlier that day, the Reverse 911 system had a hardware failure. Greene says one of the system's two voice cards, which handle dialing the outbound phone calls, stopped working. Each voice card is connected to a phone bank of 23 lines each. With only one card operational, the Reverse 911 system could still make calls but it would take twice as long.

Unfortunately, officials didn't realize that the hobbled system would not finish all 66,000 calls in the expected amount of time—which resulted in the 5,600 calls placed in the middle of the night. The system "works fine," says Greene. "It's just half as fast."

KEY LESSON: Make sure any system failures are thoroughly analyzed to ensure they won't affect critical functions.

Initially, says Greene, one of his team members assumed the voice card failure wouldn't affect the calling session. In the future, he says, employees will be instructed to pull the plug on an automated call program if the system isn't at full strength.

Also, the system has been programmed to never dial out between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m., although Greene says this isn't an ideal solution because in a true emergency that safeguard would need to be removed.

Greene adds that the Reverse 911 system "has never failed to work within its design and program specifications. We've received great technical and customer support from the company."

Do you have a tip about an information-systems snafu? Send it to todd_spangler@ziffdavis.com.


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