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Editorial: Improved alert system needed for public safety

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After a bank robbery occurred near the middle school in Franklin, police searched for the robber, who might have fled on foot.

There was no way to notify nearby residents quickly. Police couldn’t warn them of potential danger nor seek their help in tracking the robber.

But with a more sophisticated alert system and an expanded database, police and other public safety agencies would be better equipped to handle emergencies.

Whether it’s a suspected criminal running through a certain neighborhood or a big storm heading toward Johnson County, local police want a way to let residents know they could be in danger.

The county currently uses a text message alert system, but only about 500 people are signed up to receive messages. Now, Sheriff Doug Cox 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.

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 the present system, Cox said.

People also would be able to submit their cellphone number in order to receive alerts, and residents might be able to  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.

The benefits from a broader database from which to contact people are obvious, and the ability to target alerts would be exponentially more helpful. We encourage the sheriff and other public safety leaders to investigate such a system fully and to bring it to Johnson County if it’s affordable.

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