Sparse participation in new emergency notification program

By Thaddeus Miller / tmiller@losbanosenterprise.comMay 30, 2013 

An emergency notification system supported by Merced County's six cities has not received as many users as officials would like to see.

The system has been up and running since November, but fewer than 1,500 of the county's 250,000 residents have registered to get notifications by text message, email or phone call.

Los Banos Fire Chief Chet Guintini said he has not started pushing the program on the Westside, but thinks it's important residents know their cellphone numbers and email addresses are safe.

"We need to convince people that the information they are putting into the system is controlled," Guintini said.

Nobody should fret, Guintini said, as each person who registers can change or remove their information at any time.

Guintini said he expects the county's 21,000 commuters would be interested in signing up. Los Banos has thousands of commuters who travel "over the hill" to jobs in the Bay Area and may like to know what's going on at home.

Atwater police Lt. Sam Joseph said he thinks many people remain unaware of the program. Authorities used the system to notify residents near the Dole plant in Atwater, where a gas leak caused about 1,000 to leave the area in December.

"It's a valuable tool for all agencies -- it's an asset," Joseph said, adding it's much faster than older methods.

Cal Fire Capt. Jeremy Rahn, assistant coordinator for Merced County's office of emergency services, said the old system of using home phone numbers listed in the phone book is not what it used to be.

"Who owns a phone anymore?" Rahn asked. "Everybody's more available by cell phone."

He said the free service has the potential to quickly notify residents who live near looming severe weather or police actions. The same kind of system was used to worn Bostonians to stay inside during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers last month, and in the disaster area near last week's Oklahoma tornado, Rahn said.

"If we can't find you, we can't notify you," he said.

Anyone countywide can register at www.co.merced.ca.us/alert. While registering, the system gives each person up to five ways to be contacted and allows them to decide the order in which those notices go out.

Also, while registering, users can enter up to five addresses. Rahn said users typically enter their home address, the number for their children's schools and the address of elderly parents.

Residents with special needs can check boxes, such as hearing, visual, mental or otherwise impaired, for extra assistance. Anyone eager to volunteer to use their American Red Cross, medical, foreign language or other training, can make themselves known while signing up.

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said his agency used the system to notify residents to stay indoors during a Special Weapons and Tactics Team action.

Without a notification system, Pazin would have to send a handful of deputies to go door to door.

"It's quicker, it's easier," he said, "and it gets the word out."

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