This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
The late-night and early-morning robo-calls that annoyed and frightened some Lakewood residents last week are rightfully prompting emergency planners to refine the county’s fledgling reverse-911 call system.
The system sent automated pleas for help to about 11,000 Lakewood homes at about 11:30 p.m. on Nov. 19 and at 6 a.m. the following day.
The calls were initiated by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which was trying to assist the Lakewood police in finding a missing 50-year-old man.
The calls rattled some Lakewood residents, as hearing the phone ring at 11:30 p.m. often does. Calls at that hour of the night usually don’t bring good news. Other residents were just plain irked by the following day’s wake-up call.
Compounding the problem was the content of the call itself. The message didn’t make it clear that the missing man was vulnerable, not dangerous.
The man, who was subsequently found in Federal Way, has serious medical and mental issues and went missing from a health care facility in Lakewood. But residents had no way to know if the missing man posed a threat to others or merely himself.
In the wake of public complaints and news coverage of the confusing episode, Pierce County officials announced Wednesday that they are organizing a work group to develop guidelines for the use of the telephone emergency notification system.
That’s a wise move. The reverse-911 system – which can make thousands of calls a minute but also has the ability to isolate calls to a single neighborhood – is an important emergency response tool. Just this year, it helped locate a lost 16-year-old girl, save a 75-year-old Alzheimer’s patient from hypothermia and evacuate areas of Fife during flooding.
But like the state’s Amber Alert system for kidnapped children, reverse-911 could quickly become ineffective if not used discriminately. Law enforcement agencies have set criteria they consider in deciding how and when to use an Amber Alert. The criteria are designed to reserve the alert system for cases where it can make a difference and to encourage the public to take it seriously.
The county’s reverse-911 system needs similar rules to ensure that residents are neither needless alarmed by its automated message nor become disastrously indifferent to its appeals.