Residents should hope they don?t get a call from James Schwartz. But the possibility of such a call is a step forward for the county. As head of Arlington?s Emergency Services, Schwartz is one of just a few people with a finger on the button of the county?s new Community Alert System.
Unveiled to the public Wednesday, April 30, the Community Alert System is designed to let residents know about natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other major emergencies that affect public safety. ?We?re trying to reduce public anxiety by giving them information,? said Schwartz. ?Getting timely and accurate information out to the public is one of the most important things we can do.?
By signing up online, anyone who lives or works in Arlington can get the most up-to-date information sent to any text-ready device, including e-mail accounts, cellular phones and pagers.
In the event of an emergency, Schwartz, another high-ranking emergency services official or an incident commander at the scene of the emergency, will order activation of the system. Within minutes, everyone signed up for the system will receive word of the emergency, along with instructions on how to remain safe.
Developed by the Arlington-based company Roam Secure Alert Networks the system can send 100,000 messages within one minute of activation and has an unlimited capacity for clients.
?Normal e-mail systems just can?t handle that,? said Dan Gadra, general counsel for Roam Secure.
Other jurisdictions offer community service messaging systems, but officials say Arlington?s is different. Housed in the county?s network operations center, the Community Alert System is an expansion of the same emergency communication network used by first responders, public safety personnel, county employees and the Emergency Management Team.
?This system is designed from the ground up to be used by emergency managers,? said Gadra. That means it?s more secure and reliable, officials say. In fact, the system was up and running in November, but it?s only now available to the general public because the county conducted months of tests to make sure everything worked properly.
RESIDENTS SHOULDN?T expect the system to kick in very often. Only situations that threaten general public safety will trigger the alert. A car accident blocking an intersection on Columbia Pike won?t send out thousands of e-mail alerts. But it might if one of the vehicles involved was a truck carrying hazardous materials.
The system will also relay severe weather warnings from the National Weather Service.
The Community Alert System doesn?t replace other means of communication. ?This is a system of systems,? said Mark Penn, the county?s deputy coordinator of emergency services.
Penn, who managed the Emergency Operations Center during rescue and recovery efforts at the Pentagon, said lessons learned on Sept. 11 demonstrate the need for the Community Alert System.
Prior to that attack, officials assumed that a local emergency would be the biggest news of the day, and residents would get plenty of information through television and radio news reports. But the collapse of the World Trade Center took first priority for network news, and getting local information was difficult.
?There was a great deal of unknown,? said Schwartz.
NOW THE GOAL is to get residents to sign up. Jackie Snelling, chair of the Citizen Corps Council, said it?s important to spread the word throughout the county.
?I think this is a really important addition to the systems of getting information out to the community,? she said.
Citizen Corps Council members are asking organizations, civic associations, neighborhoods, churches and others to encourage people to sign up.
The county funded the Community Alert system, at a cost of about $100,000 without assistance from state or federal government. ?We are grateful for the federal funding we have received for emergency preparedness,? said county board chair Paul Ferguson. ?But it?s only a fraction of what it?s going to cost us this year and over the years.?
Emergency preparedness funding has been a hot topic in recent months, as New York officials claimed high-risk areas weren?t getting a big enough share of federal money. County Manager Ron Carlee said no matter how the funds are divided, there simply aren?t enough federal dollars to help local jurisdictions prepare.
Former acting police chief and local emergency preparedness expert Stephen Holl agreed. ?There was a lot of talk but it doesn?t seem like many of those dollars have found their way down to the street,? he said during a recent interview.