06/09/08 — Wayne county considers warning system

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Wayne county considers warning system

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 9, 2008 2:01 PM

A new countywide automated telephone alert system that would warn county residents about ongoing emergency situations could be in place by early August. And, if adequate funding can be found, could also provide weather alerts as well.

The county's budget proposal includes $25,000 for the Code Red basic alert system and county Manager Lee Smith said he is trying to find another $12,500 to add on the weather alerts that would be provided through the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). The fees would be paid on an annual basis.

The system is so flexible that alerts could be as broad as countywide or as specific as a single block. It also could target specific area codes, telephone prefixes, geographic features, such as a flood plain, or type of structures, such as mobile homes.

Amber and silver alerts could be sent through the system as well.

Smith said that not everybody wants to be called about every single incident going on each day. That is another reason it is important that the county is able to target specific areas. Sending out too many alerts runs the danger of making the public indifferent to the alarms.

Smith said the county also could make limited use of the system to make administrative calls to county personnel.

Along with its potential for saving lives and preventing injuries in an emergency situation, the system would reduce demands on personnel and save money, Smith said.

Another plus is that the county would not have to add any personnel or equipment. It would have to designate several employees who would have access to the Web-based system to activate the alerts.

In the case of weather, NOAA would handle the alerts through Code Red. Since that is an optional feature, county residents would have to sign up to be included on the notification list.

Code Red is a Florida-based company that Smith found out about through the N.C. League of Municipalities.

"The League will make connection with a company and get you a kind of bulk discount by being a part of the League," Smith said.

Basically the system is a database and unlike some alert systems, management of the database is handled by Code Red and not the county.

Persons who have traditional "landline" telephones are automatically included in the database. Smith said that Code Red is in the process of working with cell phone companies to add those numbers as well.

However, at present, persons who use cell phones would have to use Code Red's Web site to register their numbers. The same Web site can be used to register e-mail addresses or additional phone numbers where they want alerts sent to.

The system will work with the TTY systems used by the hearing impaired. Persons with that system or with unpublished telephone numbers would have to register to receive the alerts.

Smith has talked to Goldsboro City Manager Joe Huffman and Mount Olive Town Manager Charles Brown, both of whom have expressed an interest in participating in the system.

Initially the cost will be shouldered by the county.

"We did talk about them participating financially," Smith said. "I think if we get into notifying their employees or water users, then they will need to participate financially. They understand that. They said 'let's get system in place and see how it works and talk through the year for next year.' That is a reasonable step."

The $25,000 will buy the county several 100,000 minutes a year for the system for emergency use. Another $2,500 gets an additional 10,000 minutes, although Smith said he does not foresee the county having to purchase additional time.

In the future, the system could be configured to make daily calls to the elderly.

"It would kind of be a well check for elderly," Smith said. "People could sign up through WAGES or Services on Aging where they could be called every day, and if they don't pick up, could be called again or someone could come out and check on them."

Code Red's alert calls are actually made from outside the county. However, the number will appear on caller ID systems as a local number "so it won't look foreign," Smith said.

If the call is not answered, the system calls the number again.

If that happens so many times on so many phones, the system will generate a report to see if there is need to check the phone numbers.

Smith said he is not concerned that Code Red is based in Hurricane-prone Florida since the company has "a lot of redundancy."

"I don't want to look any further," Smith said. "This a good deal. I like that it is a year-to-year contract. If something better comes along we can change."

He said that he and County Attorney Borden Parker have the contract in hand and are reviewing it.

"They tell us that within 10 days of the contract that they can implement," Smith said. "I think Aug. 1 would a be good target for the basic system. I had in the back of mind to do this in 24 months. But I decided it was too important and had to find the money."

This past Thursday, Smith met with all of the county's fire chiefs at their regular meeting to tell them the county was moving forward with the system.

"The fire chiefs like it," Smith said.

The chiefs said their personnel spend a lot of time providing notification, he said.

"We already require so much of emergency personnel, especially volunteers and paid folks," Smith said. "This (going door to door) would be one less thing they need to be doing. So if we can get them on the scene working on what they need to work on and we handle notification. Another thing, you are pulling them off of the main incident to do those other things or you are having to bring in your public works people to do that (notification). This helps eliminate that. I saw relief on faces of the fire chiefs."

He said the technology is available to do the job and has the potential to save thousands of dollars in manpower and time. Safety is also a consideration, he said.

He pointed to increased traffic on the county's roads, particularly on U.S. 117, U.S. 70 and Interstate 795.

"So many things that can happen," he said. "The number of incidents has grown. There are more people in Wayne County, more chemical trucks and manufacturing. We are at the point now that is a necessity.

"There is also a comfort level. Things go on in Wayne County you might not know about and it is impossible to notify everybody. I don't know of a better way to notify people in reasonable amount of time."

He said the system could call the county's 30,000 to 40,000 households in just a matter of minutes.

Locally, the system would be coordinated by the county's communication center.