Reverse 911 system not used during Chattanooga area tornadoes

Reverse 911 system not used during Chattanooga area tornadoes

May 5th, 2011 by Cliff Hightower in News

A reverse 911 system designed to alert the public about serious threats to the community was never utilized by Hamilton County as tornadoes repeatedly touched down last week, the county's director for emergency services said.

And the county never has used the system for any emergency since it was implemented almost five years ago, he said, because there are only three criteria for using the system.

"We have not had a hazardous material incident happen, we have not had an incident happen at Sequoyah [nuclear power plant] and we haven't had terrorist activity happen," said Don Allen, director of Hamilton County Emergency Services.

The system is not ideal for handling sudden, targeted incidents such as tornadoes.

"It's not geared for tornadoes," he said.

Seven tornadoes, five confirmed, touched down in Hamilton County last Wednesday, according to news reports.

The county has a two-year contract with 21st Century Communications to provide a 24-hour, 365-day service for a rapid public notification system - commonly called reverse 911. Allen said the county pays $10,000 annually for the service.

But the system has only been used once, in 2008, as part of a training exercise, Allen said.

The reverse 911 system reaches about one-third of the county, or about 112,000 people. Everyone on the system voluntarily signed up for the service and provided a home or cell phone number, Allen said.

Dave Pleiss, spokesman for West Communications, which bought 21st Century Communications in February, said the company does not make the decisions on how the system is used. But he said the system could handle tornadoes.

"Weather is definitely one of the uses it can be used for," Pleiss said.

Allen said the emergency notification system isn't suitable for use in tornadoes because the National Weather Service does not give specific information on when and where tornadoes will strike. The emergency services department only gets general countywide warnings, so it is impossible to target specific locations through the system, he said.

And, if emergency services personnel conducted countywide notifications for tornadoes, the public would be inundated and grow complacent about the warnings, he said.

"If it's in your part of town and not in my part of town, I'll ignore it," Allen said.

Allen said he felt media did a better job notifying the public about the inclement weather than the reverse 911 system could have. He also said a better investment for individual residents would be a weather-band radio that alerts people of stormy weather.

County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he thought the system was automatically implemented for bad weather alerts. But when told the reasons for it not being used last week, he said he could see why it would not be beneficial, saying the public could become "cauterized."

"That makes sense to me," Henry said. "Those are logical responses."

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the Hamilton County Department of Education also have emergency notification systems. UTC spokesman Chuck Cantrell said Wednesday that, as early as 8:30 a.m., the university used Rave Mobile Safety last week to send out a series of texts to students, alerting them to seek shelter.

Danielle Clark, spokeswoman for Hamilton County Schools, said the system uses Blackboard Connect and constantly notified parents, students and faculty about school closures and reopenings related to the storms and tornadoes.

The school system's notification system can handle up to six phone numbers per contact and is linked to the student database, Clark said. She said those on the system routinely say they like the notifications.

"It calls about 85,000 phone numbers in 20 minutes," she said.