County may buy warning system

Computer would call residents in emergency

Possibly thousands an hour

Homeland security funds would help cover costs

October 29, 2003|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Howard County is considering buying a system that would enable public safety officials to contact hundreds, or possibly thousands, of residents an hour by phone to disseminate information in an emergency.

Known generally as "community call-back systems," the computer-based programs act like an automated phone bank. Several manufacturers offer different versions, but generally the systems can place calls to homes in a selected area and provide information to residents through a prerecorded voice message.

"It's the notification of our citizens that we worry about more than anything" during an emergency, said Victoria Goodman, a county spokeswoman. "This type of system is one of the more effective ways we've seen to be able to get information to a large number of people in a timely fashion."

The systems can also have nonemergency uses, such as informing residents of an important meeting in their community or checking on homebound senior citizens, Goodman said.

Such a system would probably cost $60,000 to $75,000 - the price would vary depending on the features chosen in the system, according to Steve Watts, a battalion chief in the county's Department of Fire and Rescue and deputy director of the Office of Emergency Management. Annual updates and maintenance fees for the system would likely cost between $5,000 and $7,000, he said.

Watts said the county will be able to pay for the system from funds it receives through the state from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"We've been looking at this for about six months now," Watts said. "We just got serious about it lately when we found out that some grant monies were available to help purchase the system."

Watts said at least two jurisdictions in the state have such systems: Baltimore City and La Plata in Charles County. Howard public safety officials were invited recently to Baltimore to see how public safety officials in the city use their system.

Howard officials also received demonstrations in the county's emergency operations center in Ellicott City from two companies that offer the system - Dialogic Communications Corp., based in Franklin, Tenn., and Reverse911, based in Indianapolis.

The next step is to prepare a request for proposals, Watts said.

As one more tool for local governments to deploy for homeland security efforts, call-back systems are gaining in popularity around the country.

But the systems have advantages and drawbacks, according to Brian J. Valentino, president of Patriot Consulting Group in Monmouth Beach, N.J., a company that advises governments on a broad range of public safety and other operations issues.

Valentino said the call-back systems are a vast improvement over other mass notification systems, such as a civil defense siren that could alert people to an emergency but not provide more specific information, or police and firefighters driving through neighborhoods with bullhorns.

"Instead of just saying there's a problem, it'll alert someone to a tornado or some emergency and tell them what to do," Valentino said. "Well, that's a lot better" than a siren.

But there are shortfalls that have deterred some municipalities from buying into such a system, he said.

For one, the systems typically rely on a phone company's telephone records - and unlisted phone numbers are generally excluded from the system.

Also, the number of calls such systems can make depends on how many phone lines a municipality devotes to the system - and that's where costs can add up, Valentino noted. If a powerful storm or a tornado knocks out telephone lines, the systems won't work, he said.

"Many of our modern phone systems are dependent upon power to even operate," he said.

Nonetheless, Valentino said he thinks Howard's purchase of such a system is a good use of homeland security funds.

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