TAVARES – Tom Carpenter never thought he’d see the day when more and more people don’t even have a home telephone line.
“It’s funny because I have a friend of mine who had one of the original hand held telephones that looks like a brick,” he said. “Now these smart phones are outpacing personal computers in sales.”
As more people connect through their cell phones – using it as their main phone line, or their link to the Internet and email accounts – in some ways it gets harder to reach them.
At least, that is, if you happen to work for a government agency trying to contact people in the event of an emergency.
“That’s what we need to try to do, is make sure we provide our residents with information using multiple methods,” said Carpenter. “While I think this new system will be a valuable tool, we still want people to have their radios so it wakes them up and tells them when there’s an emergency.”
Carpenter is the operations manager for the Lake County Department of Public Safety, Emergency Management Division, which launched a new Emergency Notification System called AlertLake this week. Under this system, residents can log on to the site www.lakecountyfl.gov, go to the page using the keyword: “emergency” to register for the system. It allows residents to receive emergency information by telephone, cell phone or e-mail, and includes everything from notices about severe weather to reports about missing persons, hazardous materials spills, law enforcement advisories and wildfires.
“AlertLake will give the county an opportunity to provide safety and preparedness information to citizens during emergency events by phone or e-mail,” said Jerry Smith, Lake County’s emergency management director. “The intent of the system is to provide residents with another means of receiving vital life-safety information, in addition to those received by a NOAA weather radio or local news media.”
The system uses the landline telephone information housed within the emergency 911 database to distribute emergency information. Residents who don’t have a landline telephone can register their cellular and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phones, as well as their e-mail address through www.lakecountyfl.gov to receive notifications.
Carpenter said this system was conceived in February 2007, when a tornado on Groundhog’s Day damaged communities in north Lake County. Those storms qualified Lake County for federal emergency disaster relief money.
“We ended up using federal funding from the 2007 storm,” Carpenter said, adding that one of the lessons of the storm is that Lake County is so large geographically, that they county needed to keep up with sophisticated ways to keep in touch with its residents.
“We needed that for a county of our size and geography,” he said. “If you drive from the northern tip to the southern tip, it takes two hours. We’re 1,156 square miles, where a vast majority of that is wooded areas and tornado sirens were just not practical for our county. What you have to do for one part of the county, you have to do for all parts. We didn’t want our 911 center getting gridlocked if a siren does go out.”
The Department of Public Safety started looking into what they needed to do to keep up with changing technology – including residents who don’t have a land line phone.
“We got a group that worked on this,” Carpenter said. “What we hope to do is be able to provide tornado warnings to warn residents in the area that the National Weather Service has designated it as an area that might see a tornado. We also want to use the system for public safety notifications, such as a missing person, wildfires, things of that nature. The vast majority of our county is very rural. We do have the land mass and we wanted a way to be able to contact folks that have cell phones.”
AlertLake has the ability to disseminate information in 27 different languages.
“What I’ve learned over the last several years is we have to be ready for new technologies,” he said. “We have to be able to be ready for what’s coming in the future. We need to contact all these folks. Under this system, if I’m driving on (County Road) 441 through Lake County and there’s a public safety incident in the area, my cell phone will ring and alert me to the danger.”
Carpenter noted that the county already had an emergency management system in place that was considered highly sophisticated. But technology simply changed too rapidly.
“The system we had before, when the county got it, was considered in the industry a Cadillac,” Carpenter said. “What happened was technology just outpaced it. We didn’t have a portal where people could say, ‘Hey, I don’t have a land line any more, I only have a cell phone.’ It did real well in warning folks there was something going on in our area you needed to be aware of, but we see more and more folks with cell phones now who plug in to their favorite media outlet and get breaking news on weather, for example. We want those folks to stay aware.
“Technology, when it works, is great,” he said. “When it doesn’t work, you may not get a phone call and something may not occur like it’s supposed to. We don’t want folks to get hooked on one method of getting information.”
The system will cost about $130,000 for a five year contract, and has the capabilities of sending hundreds of thousands of notifications at once.
For more information about AlertLake, contact the Lake County Emergency Management Division at 352-343-9420, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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