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TMCNet:  Arlington puts emergency call system on hold

[January 09, 2013]

Arlington puts emergency call system on hold

ARLINGTON, Jan 09, 2013 (Fort Worth Star-Telegram - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- After months of research, the Arlington City Council decided Tuesday to postpone investing in an emergency notification system intended to alert residents to localized emergencies such as natural gas leaks or downed power lines.

"I don't think the technology is there yet," Fire Chief Don Crowson told council members. "It's still an evolving technology that is not foolproof." The city began researching automated notification systems, already in use by some North Texas cities, after a tornado injured seven people and damaged more than 500 homes and businesses in April.

The systems are designed to send messages to land line phones, registered cellphones and email addresses citywide or within a certain geographic area.

The fire department tested a handful of systems with mixed results, Crowson said.

They could be helpful in communicating emergency information to specific geographic areas, such as a neighborhood affected by a water main break or road closure, but the technology still has too many limitations to justify the $125,000 to $175,000 annual expense, he said.

For example, residents in a certain ZIP code could be notified about a hazardous material spill and be given instructions on how to protect themselves, such as turning off their air conditioners and staying indoors, Crowson said.

But the length of time it takes that message to get out makes such a system ineffective for emergencies such as tornados or flash floods. Crowson said he estimates it would take an hour to notify an area with 5,000 residents and at least six hours to call Arlington's nearly 93,000 households.

"By the time the citizens get the message, the storm has already passed through," he said.

However, such systems could effectively issue public health warnings, such as about West Nile Virus cases, or to communicate quickly with specific groups, such as hospitals and schools, he said.

Arlington has 53 outdoor warning sirens that can be activated during emergencies, in addition to social media, local media, electronic message boards and billboards, the city website and door-to-door contact, he said.

Fewer people use land lines, which means the city would not be able to reach every home or business in an emergency through its 911 database, Crowson said. And because Arlington does not have access to a database of cellphone numbers, residents would have to voluntarily register their cellphone numbers to receive alerts through an emergency notification system.

"It's just the way communications have migrated," said Crowson, adding that about half the 911 calls made in Tarrant County come from cellphones.

City employees who helped the fire department test a handful of notification systems said they sometimes did not receive the messages, even though the systems indicated the alerts had been delivered successfully, Crowson said.

Council members said Tuesday they were interested but would prefer to wait until limitations were addressed by vendors.

"This could be a real tool for us," Councilwoman Kathryn Wilemon said. "It's very intriguing. If one time we had this and one person or one piece of property could be saved, I think it would all be worth it." Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578 Twitter: @susanschrock ___ (c)2013 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Visit the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at www.star-telegram.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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