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County rolls out emergency system

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When the Christmas Day blizzard was approaching, city and county emergency response officials decided to test the county’s newly operational Emergency Notification System.

Phone calls went out to all county residents warning that severe weather was on the way.

A later set of phone calls also went out, alerting residents that the county had declared a travel watch — meaning weather conditions had deteriorated to the point that unnecessary travel was to be avoided.

Based on the results of those experiences with the system, officials have ironed out the last of the procedural issues to make the system fully operational. Now they said they hope to educate the public on how the system will work, how to change how notifications are sent and how to respond when a notification is received.

To help familiarize the public with the system, a test of the system will be run at noon the first Friday of the month — the same time as the monthly test of the county tornado sirens.

Mayor Kristen Brown said the system allows for more of a fine-tuned approach than the previous tools available to the community, such as the tornado siren system.

“Remember back to the flood (of 2008), we didn’t have any way of notifying anybody,” Brown said. “People said, ‘Why didn’t you sound the tornado alarms?’ Well, that sends the wrong signal. That tells people, ‘Go to the lowest point in your house.’ (That’s) the last thing you want them to do in the event of a flood.”

Columbus Fire Chief Dave Allmon said the new notification system allows the rescue workers on the scene to designate specific areas where they want alerts sent, instead of blanketing the entire community. For example, if there were an escaped inmate, a one-mile circle could be designated for alerts, and then a second, larger circle could receive calls as time elapsed.

“If there is a major fire, or say there are chemicals, we can just pick out a neighborhood and say, ‘You need to evacuate your homes,’ or ‘You need to stay in place. Don’t go outside. Close your doors. Close your windows,’” Allmon said.

The initial database was culled from the listed land-line phone numbers of county residents, Allmon said. Because of some problems with phones still on copper wires, residents also should consider signing up for cellphone calls, text messages or emails, officials said.

One problem during the December tests was that residents didn’t realize they had to actually hit the number “1” twice on their phone to stop the messages from repeating, Brown said. The first “1” is to listen to the message and the second is to confirm that it has been received. Unless a confirmation is received, the system will try to recall.

Sean O’Leary, the city’s community information technology executive, said the system successfully pushed out 5,000 confirmed alerts within 10 minutes during the December events. There are about 18,000 phone numbers in the system already, and the county’s phone infrastructure would allow about 10,000 calls to go out at a time.

However, the fastest way to receive messages on the system is by text message to cellphones, then voice calls on cellphones, O’Leary said.

On text messages, residents must respond to the text with “Yes” to keep the message from repeating.

Residents can opt in for those alternative methods through a link on the city’s website. The link is on the upper right corner of the pages for the city fire department at and the police department

Although the current protocol runs the system through the Bartholomew County Emergency Operations Center, the actual system is cloud-based, operating on computer servers in Colorado and the East Coast, O’Leary said. It taps directly into the communications network infrastructure to send alerts, rather than making actual phone calls from the emergency operations center. That also means if communications from the center were disrupted, the alerts still could be sent.

Lt. Matt Myers, spokesman for Columbus Police Department, said residents can be assured the system will be used only for emergency communication.

“We are not going to bombard them. These are emergency notifications, period,” Myers said. “It is not going to be advertising Ethnic Expo or something like that. It is for emergencies.”

Among the organizations that can call for use of the system are the city fire and police departments, volunteer fire departments, the sheriff’s department and the city utilities. Procedures to work with the smaller water companies in the county are being worked out, Brown said.

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