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Friday, Mar. 15, 2013

Emergency alerts enter a new era with Notify JoCo

Special to The Star

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Snow was pouring from the sky and Olathe officials were in dismay as they watched traffic footage of stuck cars and accidents blocking major intersections throughout the city.

The blockages were keeping plow trucks and emergency vehicles from reaching their destinations.

But using Notify JoCo, the new countywide emergency notification system, Olathe was able to send phone messages to thousands of residents within two minutes during last month’s first snowstorm, urging them to stay off the streets and move vehicles to driveways so emergency vehicles and plows could pass.

It made the storm a little more manageable, said Erin Vader, Olathe’s communication and public engagement manager.

It was the first time Notify JoCo had been used.

The free public notification system was officially launched Feb. 26. It allows the county, Water One, and participating cities — Olathe, Overland Park, Shawnee, Lenexa, Prairie Village and Mission Hills — to reach residents in case of an emergency like tornado evacuations or more minor problems like water outages.

The messages will go out to any resident or business listed in the White Pages, as well as people who sign up for the notifications on the system’s website, www.notifyjoco.org. Residents can opt to have the messages texted to their cell phones or sent via e-mail. The service is not just limited to Johnson County residents, however.

“There are a lot of people who live on the Missouri side but work in Kansas,” said Rick Howell, a deputy with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. “This service is for anyone who lives, works or plays in Johnson County.”

The idea for the system came to fruition in 2011, when WaterOne experienced a main break. Unable to communicate instantaneously with its 400,000 customers across Johnson County, the company approached county officials about partnering to create a comprehensive notification system. The idea also drew interest from several cities, and the partnership was born.

“It’s not always easy to rely on emergency notifications from the TV stations or radio stations,” said Sean Reilly, communications manager for Overland Park. “To have them sent right to your phone is incredibly convenient.”

Plus, it takes the unknown away from emergency situations, making them seem less scary, Howell pointed out.

“The more information people have, the more calm they are able to act in an emergency,” he said. “These messages, which have concise and understandable instructions, offer people the chance to make informed decisions.”

Currently, in addition to the 140,000 landlines the city has acquired from the White Pages database, there are 3,600 people signed up to receive the notifications. More than 3,000 of those people signed up after the county tested the system March 5.

“The reality of today is that people are moving away from landlines and using their cell phone as their house phone,” said Ellen Wernecke, the deputy director of the Johnson County Emergency Communications Center. “So it’s important that people go to the website and sign up to receive calls, texts or emails, or whichever is most convenient for them.”

Although the service is free to residents, it’s not free to implement.

Using a California-based emergency and incident alert systems firm, Everbridge, the parties pay $147,495, which includes a one-time implementation fee, the first year. Annual fees in subsequent years are $132,500.

They also worked hard to make sure the notification system was in place before spring weather hit.

“If you look at what happened in Joplin, there’s no doubt that there is a need for a mass emergency system,” Reilly said. “And not just for before an emergency happens, but for after it happens as well.”

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