Eagle County eyes warning system that reaches out to cell phones

J.K. Perry
Vail correspondent
Eagle County officials are trying to purchase a software program that would allow them to send text messages to residents about emergencies, road closures, weather and more. (Shane Macomber/Vail Daily)

EAGLE COUNTY – A fire sparks and threatens Wildridge houses. Residents are told to evacuate on cell phones, personal digital assistants and e-mail.

It’s a service Eagle County officials hope to purchase and provide free to residents, including those in the El Jebel and Basalt areas of the Roaring Fork Valley. People who subscribe choose the information they want sent to their electronic devices. The information can be about an evacuation, accidents along local roads and severe weather updates, among others.

Barry Smith, Eagle County Emergency Management director, said Monday he was close to having enough money to buy the software program from Roam Secure, an Arlington, Va. company.

If Eagle County purchases the program before anyone else in Colorado, the price is chopped in half to $66,700. The funding comes from pledges made by several local government agencies. On top of the program cost, Vail pledged $23,000 to buy the computers needed to run the program, Smith said.

At the earliest, the system could be installed Oct. 1, Smith said. Because subscribing is voluntary, Smith said he plans an aggressive campaign asking people to join.

The county now sends emergency messages by landline phone to residents using the so-called “reverse 911” system. Many people – Smith estimates 40 percent – use cell phones rather than a traditional home phone and can’t be reached during an emergency with the current message system.

The service is already used in major cities including Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, said Ned Ingraham, vice president for Roam Secure.

“We essentially offer high-speed high-volume text messaging to state and local governments,” Ingraham said. The service “notifies citizens within a few minutes of any impending threat of minor or major importance.”

In Virginia, a couple received a tornado warning and rushed to bring their daughter downstairs, Ingraham said. Although the tornado missed, a tree crashed into the room where the daughter was, he said.

“There are cases – because of this one – where we can presume lives were spared if not injuries avoided,” Ingraham said.

From a website, subscribers can select predetermined alerts they want to receive. Options might include messages from the Colorado Department of Transportation about road closures or accidents bogging down traffic. Or people can select to receive evacuation notices in specific locations like Wildridge.

County officials will determine what options to offer.

The same officials also can send text messages within government agencies, Smith said. If an airplane crashed, Smith could alert fire districts, police and other emergency personnel in the county, he said.


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