The Dallas Morning News
Dallas’ Alarming Vulnerability
Siren system, 911 center breakdowns erode trust
We’re actually a pretty cheerful and optimistic crew here in the editorial offices of The Dallas Morning News. But like many fellow residents, we’re feeling more than a little jangled about recent public safety breakdowns in our hometown.
Maybe we just haven’t caught up on our sleep after the errant weekend wailing of every single one of the city’s 156 emergency warning sirens.
City Manager T.C. Broadnax assured residents Monday that, for the short term, staff has patched up the system. Wednesday, he will deliver to the City Council a recommendation that experts look for vulnerabilities in, not only the siren system, but other infrastructure, from water to finances.
That review can’t come quickly enough. While the evidence of deferred maintenance on city streets and sidewalks trips you or your vehicle up daily, who knows what is out of whack in the behind-the-scenes systems.
No city operations are more important than those that keep residents safe. And Dallas already is struggling with well-publicized shortcomings: the continuing police and fire pension standoff, the rising violent crime rate and the drop in the number of officers.
But the past month has raised questions about what residents can’t see. First, the combination of inadequate staffing and technical challenges in the city’s 911 call center. And over the weekend, the mysterious triggering of every emergency siren in Dallas.
At least, as far as we know right now, no one died as a result of the warning system debacle, although many were no doubt scared out of their wits. The unsettling middle-of-the-night cacophony prompted 4,400 calls into the city’s already strapped 911 call center, resulting in significant delays.
By Sunday, the city had the siren system back online after adding encryption and other security features.
Pardon us if we are less than impressed. Just as it was shocking to find that City Hall leadership had allowed staffing at the 911 call center to again fall dangerously short, we’re flabbergasted that easy-to-install encryption wasn’t already in place on the siren system.
How did that security feature get overlooked amid all the dollars distributed for expansions, upgrades and maintenance? (See the box above for details.)
It’s unknown who’s the culprit of the “unintended activation,” as vendor Federal Signal Corp. dryly labeled the nerve-rattling episode. But waiting until the system was compromised to snap to “wow, no one thought something like this could happen” is sadly naive in today’s world.
City Hall also must devise resident-friendly ways to get the word out, quickly and accurately, when this kind of situation occurs again. Because, no doubt, it will.
Broadnax, whose first day on the job was Feb. 1, must be wondering what else can go wrong. So are we. And that’s not a good feeling.
The only short-term consolation we can offer fellow on-edge residents is that the city doesn’t need to activate those 156 sirens to conduct this week’s testing.