If you live or work in Orange County and got a phone call Thursday just after 10 a.m. and didn’t recognize the number, chances are it came from a computer testing AlertOC, the mass notification system about a perceived, imminent or actual emergency event.
If you didn’t check the pre-recorded voicemail and called the number back to see who it was, you were greeted by one of a dozen real-life call-takers sitting in a windowless room in a bunker-like facility atop Loma Ridge, 1,320 feet above the area where the 241 and 261 toll roads intersect, near Irvine Lake.
The job of the call-handling staff, most of them dispatchers who work at O.C. police agencies, was to inform you that the Sept. 22 call was an annual test of AlertOC, and that in the event of a real emergency, you would have been told about the problem and what to do.
Between 9:30 a.m. and noon Thursday, 399 calls came into the AlertOC hotline after a computer blasted out a pre-recorded message to more than 400,000 phone numbers, most of them residential and commercial landlines acquired each quarter by the county, in accordance with the California Public Utilities Commission, from AT&T and Verizon 911 databases.
Here’s the breakdown of the calls:
Some people who called back the AlertOC hotline were folks wanting to be taken out of the database since they no longer lived in Orange County.
A few were locals perturbed about being bothered.
Most callers, however, were residents and employees who didn’t mind having to take a few seconds out of their morning to be reminded about the system and the critical ability of AlertOC to send out hundreds of thousands of message within minutes via phone, email and text.
One Laguna Niguel resident told a call-taker: “Thank you for caring.”
The challenge, however, is that since AlertOC launched eight years ago, the number of O.C. residents with landlines has continued to plummet, now accounting for only between 40 and 45 percent of O.C.’s population of 3.1 million.
And in order for AlertOC to reach as many people as possible — via calls or texts to cell phones, or via email — a person needs to voluntarily sign up for the free service.
So far, about 80,000 O.C. residents have opted into the system by registering on a website – a process that takes five minutes.
That’s progress, but in a county with an estimated 1 million households, there’s a long way to go.
One goal of Thursday’s annual test, which coincides with National Preparedness Month, was to goose awareness of AlertOC to get more people to sign up on their cell phones or email — information the county doesn’t have access to.
After all, say officials, remaining in the dark about a looming mudslide in the foothills or a gas leak in the suburbs could mean the difference between serious injury or damage to property or life – or worse.
“In a perfect world, everybody will opt in,” said Bryan Hovde, senior emergency management program coordinator, Emergency Management Division, Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
The OCSD’s Emergency Management Division is housed inside the highly secure Loma Ridge Emergency Operation Center (EOC).
“When I talk to people about the (AlertOC system) and signing up for it, the one thing I tell them is, ‘I hope we never call you, because that means things are going all right in your neighborhood,’” Hovde said.
Orange County is unique, Hovde said, in that its notification system covers the entire county and not just select unincorporated areas, which is the norm.
AlertOC sends out messages two to five times a month, said Sara Kaminske, assistant emergency manager, Emergency Management Division, OCSD.
Examples of recent notifications include the Tustin PD alerting residents about a critical missing adult, the Laguna Beach PD telling residents to shelter in place and not use their barbecues because of a gas leak, and the Brea PD sending out a message about police activity and to avoid the area.
Thursday’s test involved messages to residents and businesses in county territory and 25 cities. A handful of cities, such as Fullerton, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel, have an AlertOC program but do not use the county’s hotline, 714-628-7085.
Among the call-takers Thursday in the Support Center of the EOC were two Garden Grove PD employees, Dispatch Supervisor Nicole Shorrow and Rebecca Meeks, supervisor of the GGPD’s Communications Division.
Meeks said she hopes awareness about AlertOC grows, noting that to date more than 1,200 Garden Grove residents have opted into the system by registering their cell phones or emails. Garden Grove has a population of more than 175,000.
Residents in coastal areas tend to have more voluntary signups compared to central county cities, Hovde said.
And in unique areas like Silverado Canyon, which faces threats of wildfires and mudslides, nearly 100 percent of residents have signed up for AlertOC.
In the 48 hours leading up to Thursday’s test, social media PR efforts resulted in 2,000 new people signing up for the program, Hovde said.
Since the test, an additional 3,467 people have registered their contact information through AlertOC web portal.
And that, Hovde said, is progress.
To sign up, visit AlertOC