Hurricane-related robocalls wake city households

As Hurricane Irene approached Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake set up automated phone calls to dispense emergency advice to residents, but the well-intentioned effort was met with annoyance from some who said they were awakened by the calls in the middle of the night.

The automated phone calls to several hundred thousand residents Friday afternoon were supposed to stop at 9 p.m. Rawlings-Blake's recorded voice urged constituents to stock up on food, water and emergency supplies in case of prolonged power outages.

However, the computer server doing the work neglected to shut off at 9 p.m., as city officials had directed. It apparently ran all night, until someone discovered the problem after 7 a.m. Saturday and pulled the plug.

At a news conference Saturday evening, Rawlings-Blake was apologetic about the late-night calls but said she did not know how many homes had received them. The hurricane called for a major mobilization of city resources just weeks before a contested Democratic mayoral primary.

"I am deeply sorry. When I get a call in the middle of the night, it can only mean a tragedy," she said. "It caused a lot of people to lose sleep. It's the last thing I wanted."

City spokesman Rico Singleton also apologized and described the issue as an "equipment malfunction."

Regardless of whether it was a hardware glitch or a programming error, residents who were awakened by their phones — and the mayor's voice – weren't happy.

Lynn McLain, a Northwest Baltimore resident, whose phone rang at 4:17 a.m., never did get back to sleep. "Had it been an emergency evacuation, I could see calling. But I don't see calling to tell you you need to get canned food. ... I hung up after the canned food.

"I felt myself thinking, 'What did this cost, as a taxpayer?' I also thought, 'She's going to lose more votes than she's going to get from this phone call.' ... Is it even a function of government to call and tell us to buy canned food? Get the TV stations to make an announcement," McLain said.

Not everyone had a negative view of the calls, however.

"Hurricane Irene is a dangerous storm, and I applaud the mayor's efforts on behalf of the citizens she represents," said Susan Schoeffield, who lives in the city and received the call. "Too many people don't take the warnings seriously. A little prodding to do so by a public official is a positive course of action."

Singleton said the city plans to rely, in the future, on less disruptive text messages and email for such calls. But not everyone uses those technologies. For critical alerts, he said, robocalls may still be utilized.

Sun reporter Jacques Kelly contributed to this article.

Maryland weather blog: Frank Roylance on meteorology

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