Friday, February 05, 2010

TOP STORY >> City purchases alert system to help save lives

Leader staff writer

The Jacksonville City Council agreed Thursday night to spend up to $22,500 for a computerized system that will call residents in cases of emergencies, alerts and even more mundane news like a change in the garbage schedule.

Cabot has been using the rapid emergency-communication system known as CodeRED for about six months, and Mayor Eddie Jo Williams is very pleased with it.

Tornadoes are the main reason Cabot is willing to pay $15,000 a year for the service ($10,000 for general messages and $5,000 for the weather alerts), the mayor said.

Cabot was almost destroyed by a tornado more than 30 years ago and it was hit twice last year.

The Cabot mayor said the city has the system that calls everyone in the city anytime the tornado sirens are sounded.

According to Jill Mason, a company representative who gave a 45-minute presentation to the council, the CodeRED Emergency Notification System is a high-volume, high-speed communication service available for mass emergency notifications. CodeRED employs a one-of-a-kind Internet mapping capability for geographic targeting of calls, coupled with a high-speed telephone-calling system capable of delivering millions of customized prerecorded emergency messages directly to homes and businesses every day.

The company is based in Ormond, Fla.

Jacksonville has purchased two tiers of the warning system—the weather-alert programming and the one for city announcements.

The tier for city announcements is restricted to 50,000 minutes of use per year, but the city can buy more time if needed. Any weather alerts that go out on the system don’t count against the minutes.

Mason said that 50,000 minutes will probably be two to three times more minutes than the city needs. “It works out to 100,000 30-second calls and not all messages will be that long or go to everyone.”

Under the computerized calling system the city will be able to target neighborhoods, businesses and even individual streets.

So if a water pipe breaks near Martin and First streets the city can place an overlay on the computer map and only people in that area will be called and warned.

Mason said the system has proven its effectiveness and usefulness in a number of storms and natural disasters over the years.

The system can also be used to send out missing-child alerts and other police alerts.

The storm-warning tier will be controlled by the National Weather Service, which would call only those city residents who live in the path of a tornado and who have signed up for storm warnings.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher predicted the system would eventually replace the tornado sirens. “As the city grows and the siren system ages, it becomes very expensive to maintain.”

He added that tornado sirens are designed to be heard outside and sometimes inside. But they often can’t be heard over vacuum cleaners, televisions and washing machines.

The Jacksonville council waived procedures to get the purchase of the CodeRED system on the agenda and approved because of the closeness to the state’s severe weather season.

When asked how quickly the system could be up and running, Mason said it could be operational within a few weeks.

The system calls cell phones and land lines. It also has the capability to email, text and tweeter messages.

Residents will have to go online to register for the alerts, but Mason said it was a simple process.

Once the city is ready, CodeRED will begin a major public push to get residents registered to receive the calls.

Because the Jacksonville budget has already been set, the $22,500 ($15,000 for the city or general-announcement tier and $7,500 for the weather alerts) the money will come out of Jacksonville’s $100,000 contingency fund.

Fletcher said as the 2010 budget was being worked, most departments were able to keep at least one item on their wish list.

“This is what was on mine,” he said.