County to get emergency notification system

If a fast-moving wildfire erupts near your home in Jackson County this fall, you could receive a cellphone call, text message or email within minutes telling you to evacuate.

That's the promise of the county's new emergency notification system, which should be fully operational late next month, said Mark Decker, the county's chief information officer and technology director.

"The system could save lives if we can get hold of you and get you out of the house faster," he said Friday. "It's certainly faster than the old-fashioned way of knocking on doors."

Locals will be able to enter their email addresses and cellphone and work numbers into the registration website and select notification areas, including those near their homes, offices or children's schools. A link to the website will be posted on the county's site in the coming weeks.

The system can make tens of thousands of calls an hour and can call every household in the county within about 90 minutes, Decker said. Two weeks ago officials set up the reverse-911 portion of the system, which can now call all county homes with a landline to notify residents of an emergency.

The county signed a five-year contract in March with Everbridge Inc., which is providing the software to run the system. It will cost $42,685 to install and $38,600 each of the following years. A federal grant will pay for the first two years.

The cities of Ashland and Medford have also joined with the county, enabling city workers to send out their own updates, from the scene of fires, for example, said Ashland Fire Chief John Karns.

"With this system being web-based, we can do this from any computer, including those in our command vehicle out on the scene," he said. "It's really state-of-the-art."

Each year for the final three years of the contract Ashland will pay $4,150 and Medford will pay $14,400, costs that are based on population.

The Medford City Council voted unanimously Thursday to participate in the system, saying its importance became obvious during the 2009 Deer Ridge fire, which occurred the same day as Ashland's Siskiyou fire, straining emergency responders countywide.

"I'm just excited we're going to have this capability," said City Councilman Dick Gordon.

The city of Central Point is also interested in joining the partnership, Decker said. Emergency officials hope all other cities in the county will eventually agree to participate.

All county residents will be able to sign up to receive alerts, regardless of whether their city is a partner. But only partnering cities will be able to send out their own notifications, instead of solely relying on the county's updates.

Cities might use the system to let residents know about a hostage situation, criminal on the loose, chemical spill or disease outbreak, Decker said.

Cities will also be able to use the system for non-emergency updates, such as those on road closures or traffic delays. People will be able to opt out of the non-emergency updates or specify that they be sent only to an email address instead of a cellphone, for example.

Emergency responders, who have been working on getting the new system for two years, are eager to activate it before the end of this year's fire season.

"With the way that this fire season has gone, it may be rolled out just in time for the worst part of fire season," said Chris Chambers, Ashland's forest resource specialist. "This way we'll be ready."

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