The system will relay alerts and information through text messages, emails and voice messages, which is similar to the SchoolCast system used by Walker County schools.
“It will be a great way for us to communicate with the public,” county coordinator David Ashburn said. “Depending on the participation we get from the public, it will quickly become the number one way for us to communicate anything to the citizens.”
The new system was made possible through a hazard mitigation grant from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) of $29,683, as a result of being declared a federal disaster area during the 2011 tornadoes.
Officials will be able to provide instructions during emergency situations, from temporary road closures to life-saving alerts in times of potential disaster, like the tornadoes that led to the grant.
Automated weather alerts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be sent alerting citizens to impending severe storm watches or warnings.
County officials have signed on to a five-year contract with the grant money, at an estimated $10,000 annual cost.
The initial setup for the confidential database will cost $6,000 and will begin with the about 25,000 landline phones throughout the county, according to Ashburn.
Those with only a cell phone will be able to opt into the system by adding their information on a website, which will be linked through other county websites.
The messages will even be sent to cell phones of tourists who happen to be in the area, due to the integrated public alert and warning system, by notifying all phones that happen to be utilizing cell towers in the area.
“Any cell phone that is pinging off of one of our towers will get that emergency message,” Ashburn said.
Those emergency warnings would be generated at the Walker County emergency operations center, a room adjacent to the 911 center.
Ashburn said that if the system had been in place during the 2011 tornadoes, all residents within the system would have received countywide alerts, while response and recovery messages afterward would have been directed to Hinkle, Rossville and Flintstone residents at the time. He also thought it would have been useful for road closures during the Tour de Georgia races held a few years ago.
A portion of the grant — about $3,000 — will be spent notifying citizens of the system, including a mailer and other forms of advertising.
County officials will favor sending text messages and emails for the non-emergency notifications, as those features are unlimited within the data plan. Voicemail directions will be limited to high-priority emergency situations, as the number of voicemail messages is limited to 500,000 minutes per year.
Dade County will become a partner in the new system once its current contract expires in 2014, contributing an estimated 40 percent of future funding toward the system.
The joint venture will be a savings for both counties, similar to the recent upgraded 911 computer system shared by both counties.
“Both counties went in together to do it because it saves both counties a ton of money, plus it allows us to interact much better,” Ashburn said.
The portion of the revised hazard mitigation plan for Walker County that was denied by FEMA sought a system of early warning sirens throughout the county at an estimated cost of more than $2 million, according to Ashburn.
“The topography of Walker County, between the hills and the valleys, makes it very difficult for (sirens) to work well,” Ashburn said. “It has a reoccurring cost that is very (large).” Officials from FEMA denied the sirens in part due to the sheer number that would be necessary to cover the entire county, while favoring early warning messaging like the reverse 911 system.”
Hinkle community members voiced a desire for sirens following the 2011 tornado outbreak.