Getting The Word Out Better In Emergencies

New system lets officials send messages to a handful of residents or countywide

October 23, 2005|By SHERIDAN LYONS | SHERIDAN LYONS,SUN REPORTER

Carroll County's new automated emergency-notification system has been set up and should be ready for use by the end of the month, officials said.

The first group of employees was trained last week and will train others on the new system, which can deliver messages to a handful of people or countywide, said Scott R. Campbell, Carroll's administrator of public safety support services.

"The system is functional now, [but] we just literally got the training," said Campbell, comparing it with "a new ladder truck or pumper delivered to a fire company. ... There needs to be time for the personnel to train on the unit before they attempt to use it in an emergency."

Carroll must also set up the groups to be notified and those authorized to use the system, Campbell said.

Andrew B. Haines, an application engineer for Dialogic Communications Corp. of Franklin, Tenn., spent two days last week training Campbell and six other employees, along with Kimberley A. Frey of the county's office of information technology and services.

A Department of Homeland Security grant paid $65,500 toward Carroll's $110,500 system, and the county paid the rest.

Haines said Carroll had laid excellent groundwork for the system, which includes DCC's GeoCast, a program that takes a designated area on a map and pulls up all of the telephone numbers to be automatically called by the system.

"These are the ... biggest things: the communicator, notification of a set number of people and GeoCast, which lets us get the word out, whether it's dozens or hundreds or thousands," Campbell said.

At Wednesday's training session, Campbell and the others tossed out possible situations - a gunman with a hostage, a chemical spill, a lost child - that might trigger the need for the emergency-notification system. In the hostage situation, the system could call the immediate neighbors but eliminate the telephone number of the house with the gunman.

In the case of a wider threat, the system could make thousands of calls, officials said, using DCC lines.

"DCC has the ability to reach out to the masses," making 500 calls at a time, said Campbell. "If we did have to call thousands of people, we would do the message and DCC makes the calls."

This would have been useful during the recent snafu in Westminster, he and others agreed. Increased turbidity at the Westminster water-treatment plant early Oct. 9 prompted a warning to boil water at almost 8,000 homes and businesses served by the system. But the warning didn't reach local officials in a timely manner and resulted in a late-day decision to close Westminster-area schools for a day. By the time most customers learned of the problem, it had been resolved, officials said.

Setting up the system is key, Haines told those training on the system. "The communication is dependent upon you to put the information in. How do I make a lot of phone calls real quick to a specified group of people?"

While Carroll's system could handle smaller situations, Haines said the county would likely use DCC's lines when a message must be delivered quickly or when thousands of people need to be reached.

"If I've got 100 people to notify, the [Carroll] machine can handle it, but if I've got 100 people and only six or seven minutes, I need to get this out now - and might let DCC do it," Haines said.

In either case, he said, the county would call to activate its account, give the message it wants delivered and to whom, "and the machine starts calling people."

Campbell noted that if there were a crisis at the county building that forced out the emergency-services staff, DCC could make calls while the staff set up the mobile command vehicle.

Haines has conducted between 35 to 40 training classes each year in about eight years with DCC, which has provided the emergency-notification service not only in Towson and Kent County, but in Medicine Hat and Calgary in Canada and in Mexico City. The emergency-notification technology arose about 20 years ago to meet a request by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, he said.

Carroll had a good head start, he said, with telephone numbers and a map program that can show every house, driveway, pond, fire hydrant or railroad track. It has listed and unlisted telephone numbers, which are available to police and emergency services, Frey said.

She said she receives weekly telephone listing updates from Verizon every Monday morning.

Frey also said the system can be set up to adapt, for example, by requiring that only one of the county commissioners be notified, or all three - or all five, when five commissioners are elected next year.

The emergency-notification system usually gives six rings, and instructs the resident to press any key for an important message. It knows how to listen for the beep of an answering machine, and can leave a message or ask the recipient to call for it.

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