When to Use Reverse 911: A Cost-Benefit Analysis

August 10th, 2010 by CHHS RAs

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By Andrew Bennett
CHHS Research Assistant, summer 2010

A mother wakes up at 3:30 a.m. and, on the way to the bathroom, peeks her head into her fourteen-year-old son’s bedroom to check on him. As her eyes adjust to the dark she realizes her son is not in his bed. She feels a cool breeze and discovers the window is open. Her mind tries to comprehend what has happened. Where is her son? She notices that the room is a little more of a mess than usual – almost as if there had been a struggle. She calls 911.

The police need to find the missing teenager, and time may be a critical factor in whether he is unhurt or even alive when they do. They have a number of tools available, including the jurisdiction’s Reverse 911 system, which allows emergency responders to deliver a recorded message via telephone to residents of a target geographic area to notify them of an emergency and ask for their cooperation. Emergency responders in Ventura County, CA, for example, activate their Reverse 911 system for “evacuation notices, hazardous materials releases, community policing activities (AMBER alerts, endangered missing adults, prisoner escapes, high incidence of criminal activity, etc.), and boil water alerts.”

Should the police use Reverse 911 to try to find this missing teenager?

In a similar situation on July 15, 2010, dozens of people complained when the Middletown, CT police called residents via a Reverse 911 system at 11:30 p.m. in search of a missing 14-year-old autistic boy. Many found the call inconvenient. Some asked to be removed from the Reverse 911 system altogether. Nonetheless, others supported the decision to place the calls. The boy was found unharmed thanks to cooperation from the public (he was found 20 minutes after the alert went out; it is unclear whether the alert led police to him), but the situation in Middletown highlights some of the issues surrounding Reverse 911 systems.

When deciding whether or not to use the Reverse 911 system, emergency responders need to analyze the costs and benefits of the system. They should only activate the system if the expected benefit of doing so is higher than the expected cost. In the context of Reverse 911, benefits include the successful outcome of activating the system. In this particular case, the expected benefit is the chance that the system will result in the police finding the missing teenager multiplied by the value of finding him. The costs of activating the system generally include the vendor’s price of activation, the inconvenience to residents, and perverse incentives (e.g. frequent Reverse 911 calls may decrease the system’s effectiveness). These figures are not readily quantifiable, so responders must exercise their best judgment.

Sometimes the judgment call is easy. Using a Reverse 911 system to warn a neighborhood that a neighborhood cat is allergic to jelly beans would be absurd. On the other hand, the benefits of warning a neighborhood that two dangerous escaped felons are on the loose nearby undoubtedly outweigh the costs.

Other times the judgment call is more difficult. To determine the expected benefit of using Reverse 911 to find the missing teenager in our hypothetical case, police need to estimate the possibility that he is in danger and the chance that Reverse 911 will help find him if he is. There is a significant possibility that the teen simply snuck out of the house, in which case the benefits would not outweigh the cost of waking everyone in the area. The police need to determine how likely it is that he snuck out.

Changing the facts provides greater perspective on those judgment calls. What if our hypothetical teen were 13 years old? What if he were 15? What if the missing teen was female? What if he had autism or Down syndrome?

On the costs side of the equation, different facts also offer greater perspective. The cost of inconvenience to residents will vary by the time of activation. As it gets later at night, more residents will be asleep, and the Reverse 911 call will likely wake them up. Earlier calls will be less of a burden to residents.

These are tough questions that emergency responders face. Developing guidelines in advance may help responders make these cost-benefit calculations. A possible first step: emergency managers may want to meet with residents to discuss the circumstances in which they should activate the Reverse 911 system. The pulse of your community will help point you in the right direction.

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