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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane County unveils new alert system

Notifications will be made by phone and e-mail

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich plans to keep his bullhorn, but he soon will have a more subtle way to warn Spokane County residents of emergencies.

Starting Monday, residents may register their cell phones, voice-over-Internet phones and e-mail addresses to receive emergency messages.

Some 210,000 land line phone numbers were automatically enrolled in the county’s new ALERT Spokane system, which got its first use July 18 when a man went on a homicidal rampage in the Northwood neighborhood north of Millwood.

The Sheriff’s Office was able to deliver phone warnings to 90 homes around the house where the suspect eventually killed himself after killing two others, according to county emergency communications director Lorlee Mizell. The automated dialing system was programmed to call 98 homes, excluding the suspect’s.

Mizell said a neighbor who didn’t get a call had a phone that uses Voice over Internet Protocol, commonly called VoIP. Although VoIP and cell phone users have conventional telephone numbers, they must register their numbers with the county because of the way service providers deal with 911 databases.

Vonage, Time Warner and Comcast are examples of VoIP telephone service. Comcast service is classified as land line for tax purposes, but Mizell said customers still need to register their phones.

Registration can be done online or by mailing in a form that will be available online. Either way, it could take up to four months for the registration to become effective.

Knezovich emphasized that he and other emergency service providers will continue to use all their “tried-and-true” methods, including the car-mounted bullhorns used to order evacuations during the 2008 Valley View fire.

The ALERT Spokane system can send e-mails to registered addresses, but can’t cope with video-conferencing services such as Skype or instant-message systems. It also won’t work with solicitor-blocking telephones or any that require callers to speak or press a button to leave a message.

Mizell said emergency messages will begin with the phrase, “This is ALERT Spokane.” Currently, the system will show up on caller ID as “Spokane ECC,” but Mizell said she is working to change the display to “ALERT Spokane.”

The $66,000 system, including two years of maintenance, was purchased with a federal Department of Homeland Security grant. After two years, a voter-approved one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for emergency communications will pay the $33,000-a-year maintenance fee.

Mizell said the system is capable of delivering 7,500 messages an hour. Assuming there are four single-family homes per acre in the metropolitan area and no apartments, ALERT Spokane could contact nearly every household in a three-square-mile area in an hour.

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