The City of Portland on Friday morning issued the largest boil water notice in city history.
The advisory was clear – do not drink any water that wasn’t boiled because city officials found E. coli during routine testing.
That urgent message had to reach around 670,000 water users in and around the city, which is no easy task.
The Portland Water Bureau first posted the notice on its website around 10:40 a.m. A few minutes later at 10:43 a.m., the bureau tweeted out the warning via @portlandwater.
But what if you’re not on Twitter? How are you supposed to hear urgent information? We looked at some of the available systems and how they worked on Friday morning.
Community Emergency Notification System
The City of Portland activated its “community emergency notification system” on Friday, which is known as PublicAlerts. That system sent out messages via text, email, landline, cell phone and Twitter, according to water bureau spokeswoman Jaymee Cuti.
There is a catch, however. Only people who had previously opted in for the PublicAlerts system received the notice via text, email, Twitter or cell phone.
Voice messages were sent out to all landlines, although it takes hours for the system to reach everyone, Cuti said. The first message went out at 11:16 a.m.
Cole Merkel works in Portland at Street Roots. He said his office didn’t get the call until 1:45 p.m, well after he first heard about the boil notice.
“We knew from 11 onward due to social media and the press conference,” Merkel said.
The KGW news desk didn’t receive the notification call until 2:30 p.m. Others reported getting calls after 3 p.m.
3:22 pm...I just got the reverse 911 call about the boil water order in Portland. Thats 3.5 hours after the notice went out. @KGWNews— Pat Dooris (@PatDooris) May 23, 2014
Cuti acknowledged the landline system can lag behind. She strongly recommended that metro area residents opt-in for the text or email alerts to get the quickest notifications.
The system also tweets out alerts via @PublicAlerts. Its first tweet on Friday came at 10:49 a.m.
The Portland Water Bureau and a plethora of local media outlets were quick to use Twitter on Friday morning to spread news of the boil notice. @KGWNews, for example, tweeted out the alert at 10:43 a.m., one minute after the Portland Water Bureau tweeted its first notice. We also sent a push alert via our mobile app at the same time.
The water bureau urged journalists and residents to use the hashtag #PDXBoil to track the latest developments.
Wireless Emergency Alerts
Certain public safety and government authorities have the ability to send alerts to smartphones called “Wireless Emergency Alerts.” These look like a text message, but generally pop up on your screen and have a special tone or vibration.
The federal government regulates these alerts an only allows them in certain situations, including extreme weather, “threatening emergencies”, AMBER alerts or presidential alerts during a national emergency.
Cuti said the city decided against using a Wireless Emergency Alert in this case because it can only be sent to the entire county, which means people not under the boil notice would have received it. The system limits alerts to 90 characters, which officials felt weren’t enough to provide the necessary context.
Cuti said they felt the Community Emergency Notification System was a “more appropriate” medium for spreading the news.