Steps the American Red Cross is taking after a six-hour outage of its emergency communications hotline "are a great start," said an advocate for parents of military members. But she wants the Red Cross to be sure the situation never arises again where family members are not able to get emergency messages to their service members.
The American Red Cross Armed Forces emergency communications hotline went down for more than six hours May 30, officials said.
"There are thousands of military families who are relying on them," said Elaine Brye, the mother of four service members who has been an advocate and mentor for other military parents for 15 years.
"I have serious concerns about this outage since there was no alternative for families to use," Brye said. "How many families were left in limbo because of this situation?"
The Defense Department relies solely on the Red Cross to take emergency calls from family members and to obtain complete, accurate and verified reports of family situations for troops and their commanders.
For example, the Red Cross takes calls about family members who have been seriously injured in accidents or have died. This communication helps commanders determine what actions are needed, such as sending the service member home on emergency leave.
On May 30, another military mother contacted Brye about the Red Cross hotline being out of service when she was trying to notify her service member about a family emergency. Brye contacted the Red Cross Facebook page and was told that the number wasn't working, and she should try the call later. Two local Red Cross offices had no knowledge of an alternate number, she said.
"Technical issues" were to blame for the outage, said Peter Macias, spokesman for American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces. "Within an hour, we had a backup system taking limited calls. Within six hours, we had an independent redundant system fully operational."
Macias said it took six hours for the backup system to engage because they were having technical difficulties launching that system, too.
On average, the emergency communications line takes in 1,000 calls a day, which averages about 41 calls an hour, Macias said. But those numbers vary depending on the day of the week, the time of day, holidays and other factors such as disasters, he said.
An outage happened once before — in 2011, because of hardware problems, he said.
Macias said the outage was not related to the Red Cross' move earlier in May to consolidate its call centers, which involved shutting down operations in San Diego and Springfield, Massachusetts. Starting May 8, such services are handled through call centers at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Louisville, Kentucky, with increased staffing.
Brye said that on Monday, she and others had difficulty trying to contact Red Cross officials to express concern about the outage, and the lack of an alternate way to contact Red Cross to initiate an emergency message.
On Wednesday, she said, a Red Cross official contacted her to let her know that, based on her advice and that of others, the Red Cross will post an alternate number if the line goes down in the future. She's also been asked to provide feedback to a team that is reviewing the situation.
"I think the steps they are taking are a great start," Brye said. "They will solve some of the issues we had. But keeping the alternate number secret needs to be addressed. People at every level need to know that there is another way if the main line goes down.
"I feel that they are taking a business approach to a critical mission sensitive role. ... It's not just a business call center."
Macias said the agency's new self-service Internet-based option, which will be available by the end of the summer, will allow troops and their families to request an emergency message from any mobile device or computer, and to track it online. The emergency hotline will remain available.
DoD is providing $24 million to the American Red Cross for services to the military this year, with the emergency communications services consuming one-third of that. The rest is used for theater support to deployed troops, and installation- and community-based services for military, their families and veterans, officials said.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.