By Mike Fletcher
---- — Whether it’s a tornado, a severe storm, a flood, a rash of burglaries or even a flu pandemic, a new county-wide mass notification system will keep residents attuned to what’s going on.
The Howard County Sheriff Department launched its mass notification system this week.
Residents who sign up for the system through the sheriff department will be alerted by phone to any impending dangers, like the Nov. 17 tornado.
"I think it's a great idea," Debra Kauble, whose home on Quail Run Drive was demolished by a tornado that day.
"Actually our phone was the reason why we went in the closet. My husband and I have iPhones with a weather alert app. Both of our phones went off at the same time. We thought we better get our critters and get in the closet. Within a few minutes our house was hit. Had we not heeded that warning, we would be dead. It was a nightmare. I haven't got over it yet."
With the new system, Kauble will be notified by the county of serious threats.
"I think it's a great idea," she said. "I will be one first ones to sign up for it."
Sheriff Steve Rogers said former Howard County Emergency Management Agency Director Larry Smith came up with the idea several years ago, but it never took hold until recently.
“The technology was just being developed and the system we were looking at back then was not compatible with what we wanted done,” Rogers said.
Rogers said officials came across a company named Everbridge, which set up notification systems during the Boston Marathon bombing and Hurricane Sandy.
“This is something we wanted and Everbridge has worked so well in keeping people notified,” he said.
Cathy Kanable, a city worker and resident of East Wheeler Street, said when the Nov. 17 tornado touched down near her home, she had no clue it was that close.
"We knew it was a bad storm, but if my sister hadn't texted me, we would not have known there was a tornado," she said. "We had no idea what was coming."
With the new system, people in the path of a tornado will be alerted with a phone call before the tornado hits.
"I think something like this would be perfect," she said.
The system is in its early stages and the sheriff department is hoping to get the word out to residents.
“Right now, we want people to know how to sign up and what they want to sign up for,” Rogers said.
Citizens who choose every available notification may get more phone calls — possibly at inconvenient times — than they would like, Rogers cautioned.
“We want people to be alerted and not annoyed so be specific on what you want to sign up for.”
When people choose weather alerts, they are able to set quiet times so they don’t receive the notifications when they don't want them.
The only alert that can’t be opted out is a tornado warning, he added. Every other alert is optional.
People can sign up for all alerts or just for fire, law enforcement, EMS and water information.
Rogers said the severe weather alerts come automatically from the National Weather Service and Everbridge, but local police departments and fire departments also can issue alerts to specific areas for such things as an Amber Alert, Silver Alert or to notify residents of a rash of robberies or burglaries in a specific area.
The system costs the sheriff department $32,000 a year and will cover the entire county, including Russiaville, Greentown and other smaller communities.
And the system will only alert those residents directly affected. For example, if there is a missing child in Greentown, the system will alert people in that area and not the entire county.
Nick Capizolli, communications director at the sheriff department, said people wishing to sign up for the free service can go to www.howardcosheriff.com and click on the citizens alert notification system at the top of the page.
From there, it will take users to a website powered by Everbridge. People only have to give out their name, address and phone number and the system is driven by user name and password.
People wishing to sign up who do not have Internet access, can do so by going to any Howard County library and using a computer there or the computer in the lobby at the sheriff department. Once you’re signed up, you don’t need a computer to be notified, just a phone.
Fast facts What: County-wide mass notification system is now available for sign up. System will call residents in the event of major event. Who: All Howard County residents. How: Sign up for free at www.howardcosheriff.com by clicking on citizens alert notification system.