By Mike Donila
(WBIR-Knoxville) Knox County is set to implement a mass notification system that has the ability to quickly provide emergency telephone, text, or email notices to every one of its residents at one time or focus only on a single neighborhood or street corner if need be.
The communication service, which will cost about $70,000 a year to operate, should be in place within the next six months.
"I think it's going to be a marvelous thing to have, and I don't think there's any question that in a few years from now we'll look back and say that this is a great investment and that it also probably helped save some lives," said Knox County Commissioner Mike Hammond, who is spearheading the effort.
Companies have until the end of August to place a bid. After that, an evaluation committee will recommend a vendor to the County Commission for final approval, possibly during the board's October meeting.
"I think this started back when we had the tornadoes about a year or so ago and all the destruction that occurred, and it really came to me the fact that we really didn't have any early warning system," Hammond said. "It's not just for tornadoes, though. Let's say there's an accident on Papermill Road. It can send out text messages to the people who live in a certain radius of the accident. Or if there's a water main leak and we have to close the road. It can let the people who live in the area know."
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett said Hammond approached him last year to talk about the proposal. The mayor said they briefly discussed using sirens, but felt that "they're not only antiquated but East Tennessee's hilly terrain makes them cost prohibitive."
Instead, he said, they turned to the electronic notification system.
"In this day and age it would be crazy not to be connected, especially with the technology we have," the mayor said. "I think it's something the public will eventually demand."
Currently, the public relies on the media, the National Weather Service, local utilities, and the various governmental communication departments to spread the word if there is an emergency. Officials, though, said the new service, using a number of local and national databases, would be more efficient and reach more people.
In addition, officials said, the service could warn residents about problems that usually don't receive media attention, like small water main breaks, or power outages that affect only a street or two.
"You can have this set to where it contacts everyone who signs up or just a select few who are affected by the problem," said Hugh Holt, the county's purchasing director.
The service will be free and residents are not required to get it. Those who do can receive three types of notifications: emergency situations, general notices and weather alerts.
Emergencies typically entail chemical leaks, evacuations or natural disasters. General notices include utility outages, street closings, crime alerts or water main breaks. And weather alerts include severe thunderstorms, tornadoes and flash flood warnings, for example.
The communication service, officials said, could have played a key role roughly 10 years ago when a train derailed near Farragut's Anchor Park or even just two years ago when pounding hail and a small tornado swept across part of Knoxville.
Through phone calls, emails, or texts, emergency personnel could have better warned residents about the problems, told them how to protect themselves, and let them know when any danger had passed.
Hammond noted that a number of local governments across the country have begun using similar systems, including Louisville, Ky, which he looked into.
There, officials signed a contract with CodeRED in October 2011 - about seven months following an explosion that injured two, killed two, and created a chemical leak in the city's Rubbertown neighborhood.
"At the time, we had no way to quickly alert everyone besides the traditional media and TV outlets," said Chris Poynter, communications director for Louisville Metro, which has a population of about 750,000. "We had several community meetings afterward to talk about it and the community said they needed to be alerted."
Poynter said that the city signed a $100,000-a-year contract with CodeRED, and "it's worked out very well."
"We've been able to target areas with it - we can set it to alert people on only four blocks - so it's very flexible," he said. "We use it all the time and it's been very effective because we can get information out very quickly to people."