County dials up alert for 911 warnings
For several years now, Spokane County’s 911 system has had the ability to notify people of potential danger nearby – a wildfire evacuation, a gunman on the loose, even a water system contamination.
But the 4-year-old emergency community warning system has a major flaw: So many people have switched to cellphones and Web voice communications that the ability to reach people in an emergency is limited, county officials said Tuesday.
Traditional telephones, often called land lines, are automatically registered by name and address through the phone company. But most calls now to 911 are made from cellphones. Last month, for example, cellphone calls made up 79 percent of all calls to the local 911 center.
People who have switched to wireless or Web voice communications have to register individually to get the community warnings.
The number of CenturyLink land lines in Washington dropped from 2.7 million in 2001 to 1.1 million at the start of 2013, and continues to decline, said Kerry Zimmer, a spokeswoman for the telecommunications company in Spokane.
In 2013, traditional phones were used for just 17 percent of the 269,000 calls placed to 911. Cellphones accounted for 76 percent. The rest came from web-based voice systems.
The warning system can be used for both large and smaller events.
In 2013, the system contacted neighbors living near an elderly man who wandered from his home and was quickly found as a result, said Lorlee Mizell, the 911 director.
County commissioners on Tuesday said the county is going to launch a public information campaign this fall to encourage people to get registered.
To sign up, go to alertspokane.org.
Notifications can be directed to a business or a location of a family member. The system also can be used to receive warnings through emails or text messages.
The warning system was used for evacuations during this summer’s fast-moving Watermelon Hill fire southwest of Spokane.
The notification system is part of a wider upgrade of emergency communications in Spokane County, including a new emergency services radio system.
Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said getting the public to participate by signing up is important. “This is going to be a hard push to make this system work,” he said.