Monday, August 11, 2003

Reverse 911 is limited by listings

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COVINGTON - Kenton County residents with unlisted phone numbers are blocking more than nuisance calls.

They also risk missing an emergency alert if a chemical spill, fire or bomb threat occurs nearby.

That's because the county's new telephone alert system lacks their numbers, too.

Bary Lusby, deputy director for Kenton County Homeland Security and Emergency Management, figures about 20,000 Kenton County households have unlisted numbers. Unless those households share those numbers with his department, the county's new emergency phone notification system - or reverse 911 - can't call them in an emergency.

"We're asking people with unlisted numbers to call our office and give their name, full address with zip code, and phone number," Lusby said. "We'll put that information in a secure computer, and it won't be released to any third party."

Lusby said the problem surfaced two weeks ago when fire broke out at a Latonia warehouse. Because of concerns that the smoke could put people with respiratory problems at risk, Kenton County officials activated their new reverse 911 system.

A computer called 920 households downwind of the Firestone Building Products Co. plant within 40 minutes, alerting them to the potential health hazard, Lusby said.

Some residents with unlisted numbers later complained that they weren't notified. Still others with listed numbers who lived near the plant asked authorities why they weren't notified.

"I think the biggest misunderstanding was the criteria we used for notifying people," Lusby said. "We called people who were downwind. From the plant, we went due north and due east, a 90-degree angle, to compensate for any wind shift. People who were a couple of blocks to the west were not called."

The recording recommended that residents close their doors and windows, turn off air conditioners and not go outside.

Although some residents later complained that the county failed to tell them when they could turn their air conditioning back on, that's not practical, Lusby said. For up-to-the-minute information on an emergency situation, he advised monitoring TV and radio reports.

Kenton County's reverse 911, or communicator system, has 24 phone lines, Lusby said. Of those, 23 are outgoing and one is an incoming line.

In 1999, Boone County installed a similar emergency alert system that it purchased with a federal grant.

"We're really happy with it," said Dan Maher, director of Boone County Emergency Management. "The thing that we like about it is the versatility. Using geometric grids, we can select specific areas of the county to notify if there's something going on in their area."

In June, Boone County emergency management officials used the system to alert residents of a Florence neighborhood to stay indoors because an armed man had barricaded himself in a house.

Maher added the system has been used to help find missing children and to notify residents if the fire department is burning a nearby building for a training drill.

"This system saves manpower, because you don't have to go door to door," Maher said. "It's also quick. We can notify several hundred homes within a matter of 10 to 15 minutes."

Still other possible uses include notifying people about discolored water or if a fire department is testing hydrants in a particular area, or alerting them to a water main break or a boil water advisory, Lusby said.

Campbell County emergency management officials would like to install an emergency phone notification system if they can come up with the money, said Ken Knipper, director of that county's Office of Emergency Management.

The systems Campbell County has looked at cost between $38,000 and $41,000, excluding annual upkeep. The telephone alert system is included in his agency's long-range plan, Knipper said, and he is exploring possible grants.

"I think it's an invaluable tool for our line of work," Maher said. "Minutes count when you're notifying people of actions that they can take to protect themselves."

Who to call

If you are a Kenton County resident with an unlisted number, call Kenton County Homeland Security and Emergency Management so that your number can be added to the reverse 911 list. Call (859) 392-1488 and leave your name, phone number and full address, including zip code. The numbers won't be shared with a third party.



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