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County exploring mass emergency alert system

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If a suspected criminal is running through a certain neighborhood or if a big storm is headed toward Johnson County, local police want a way to let residents know they could be in danger.

As an example, Sheriff Doug Cox pointed to the manhunt in California for Christopher Dorner, who was believed to have killed multiple people after his dismissal from the Los Angeles Police Department. If police had a similar manhunt here, Cox would struggle to quickly warn people that a shooter might be on the run near their home, he said.

The county currently uses a text message alert system, but only about 500 people are signed up to receive messages, so Cox is not able to reach enough people at once.

Now, he is talking with vendors about setting up a system that would compile all available land line phone numbers and any numbers in the sheriff’s database to be available for emergency alert calls.


The sheriff already can envision multiple uses for an alert system, such as notifying people of severe weather, warning people about possible criminals in an area or informing homeowners that police are investigating burglaries or break-ins near their houses.

A mass alert system could cost $17,000 to $35,000 for software and maintenance each year. Cox hasn’t determined how the system would be paid for but planned to ask other police departments and possibly other local communities to share the cost.

The alert system would allow the county to choose how many people are notified, ranging from a handful of homes in a specific area to the entire county.

“It would be a big asset to my office because if we get called out to a big fire that we have to evacuate people or like the flooding that happened in 2008 or a tornado, we can get that information out quickly,” said Stephanie Sichting, Johnson County Emergency Management Agency director.

Right now the county can use the Nixle text alert service to immediately notify people, but about only about 500 people have signed up to receive those alerts, Cox said.

Compiling all the land line numbers from the phone book and numbers in the county database wouldn’t include everyone who lives and works in Johnson County, but it would be a vast improvement over Nixle, Cox said.

People also would be able to submit their cellphone number in order to receive alerts, and he believed residents also could opt out of the system if they didn’t want to be contacted, he said.

Morgan County has been using a mass alert system since July for alerts, including severe weather, missing children and senior citizens, hazardous material spills, road closures, evacuations and power outages. The system can contact every number in its database in about two minutes with a voice or text message, Morgan County Emergency Management Agency director Jeff Neal said.

“We’ve had several people call, and they really appreciated the system, and they think it will be something that’s worthwhile,” he said.

Morgan County pays $17,000 per year for its system, with the money coming out of the county’s 911 fund, which collects fees paid with residents’ land line or cellphone bills, Neal said.

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