City snow-alert problems probed

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April 4, 2005 // UPDATED 1:53 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

You may want to forget snow, but the city isn't forgetting its snow snafus.

The city's efforts to call residents and alert them to a snow emergency with a 30-second recorded message didn't go as planned this winter - fewer than a third of the calls connected.

The results have "not been fully satisfactory," said Mike Kennedy, the city's head of winter operations. "We still believe this has the potential to be a great service to the public, so we hope people have patience."

The city only called two snow emergencies this winter. The first, Jan. 21, happened before the city contracted with SwiftReach to do the calling campaigns.

SwiftReach ran a test Feb. 10. Of the 161,000 numbers on the call list, the system attempted 77,000 calls and made 49,000 connections, or 30 percent, Kennedy said.

On the Feb. 20 snow emergency, the city had 140,000 numbers on the call list. (It was a Sunday and they dropped the business numbers.) The system made 52,000 calls and got 33,500 connections, or 24 percent.

Said Kennedy, "At 4:59 [p.m.], almost the exact same time each time, we hit this wall where our calling rates dropped down to basically zero, just a few calls a minute. It could have been congestion. It could have been competition with telemarketers. We don't really know."

The system was getting messages back saying things such as "Warning, if you continue with this number of calls, we are going to shut you down," Kennedy said.

The company ran diagnostics and talked to Qwest. SwiftReach says the system is ready and offered to do a free test run. The city said no.

"We just thought, 'Let's not bother our customers any more than we have to,'" Kennedy said.

During a City Council hearing on the phone system, Councilmember Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) suggested the city target calls to high-congestion areas first, alerting those most likely to get towed. Kennedy said the city is working on that and other ways to prioritize the calls.

The city spent $15,000 on the phone call system this winter, Kennedy said. He expected next year it would cost approximately $10,000 per snow emergency.