Thursday, October 25, 2007


Emergency Management

Campus safety has been a hot issue since Virginia Tech. Story in this morning's paper touches on new system Spokane County is looking at, and how Eastern is leading the way in addressing this issue. Here it is:

Spokane County considering 'reverse 911' calling system

John Craig
Staff writer
October 25, 2007

Spokane County plans to join several area organizations that use the sort of electronic notification equipment that has been warning thousands of Southern California residents to flee from advancing wildfires.

Known generically as "reverse 911," systems similar to those used by telemarketers or doctors' offices can send emergency messages to home and cellular phones, e-mail addresses, fax machines, pagers and other devices.

Coupled with computerized maps and databases, the systems allow authorities to send mass or precisely targeted messages, for such events as school closures or school lockdowns.

People at work can be notified if a wildfire is moving toward their neighborhood, and people at home can be warned if a neighbor takes hostages at gunpoint. The gunman can be kept out of the loop.

About a month after a Virginia Tech student shot 32 people to death on the university's Blacksburg, Va., campus in April, Eastern Washington University installed a system that is now widely used on college campuses to send emergency text messages to student, faculty and parental cell phones and e-mail addresses.

Now, EWU officials are working on tying the system to flashing beacons in classrooms and the big-screen television in the Pence Union Building.

North Idaho's five-county Panhandle Health District installed a larger system last month in the Kootenai County sheriff's 911 communications system, and district officials plan to demonstrate it next month to their Spokane County counterparts.

Spokane County's Emergency Services Department obtained $90,000 in federal Homeland Security money last year for a countywide notification system. Program specialist Darrell Ruby said the department received about a half-dozen lease proposals about a year ago, ranging in price from $40,000 to $110,000 a year, but officials decided they needed more information.

"I'm convinced that we're going to get this project completed here soon," but not this year, Ruby said.

Problems still under study include choosing among features and dialing capacities. Also, Ruby said, county officials want to learn more about the EWU system and one operated by Educational Service District 101.

"We want to at least be aware of other systems so we're not sending conflicting messages," Ruby said.

But figuring out how to pay future costs may be the biggest obstacle. The federal grant is for one year only.

"It's difficult to avoid the ongoing charges," he said, citing the need to keep databases, hardware and software up to date.

At minimum, Ruby said, the system would tap into the 911 database, requiring negotiations with the telephone company officials who maintain it. But he hopes to supplement the 911 database of home telephone numbers with cell phones and e-mail addresses.

As in the EWU and Panhandle Health District systems, people would be invited to provide the additional information on a security-encoded Web site that would require verification and passwords.

Panhandle Health spokeswoman Cynthia Taggart said the district's notification system is limited to Kootenai County at present but will be available to Shoshone, Bonner, Boundary and Benewah counties as well as the Coeur d'Alene Reservation.

Taggart said the tribal government put up $4,000 in installation costs, and the equipment was purchased with a $33,000 national Centers for Disease Control grant for bird flu pandemic warnings. Local governments will be asked to share in operating costs in the neighborhood of $9,000 a year.

The system will be used for all sorts of warnings, not just flu advisories. Health-related warnings might involve hazardous chemical spills that poison waterways or spread noxious fumes, Taggart said.

"This takes the place of going down the street with a bullhorn," she said.

However, (EWU Police Chief Tim) Walters said he favors a "multilayered" system that still includes a cop with a bullhorn.

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