How effective is Reverse 911?

February 14, 2008

Tift County --  Eight years ago tonight, 20 people were killed when several tornados ripped through south Georgia. Some of those deaths may have been prevented if residents could have been warned in time.

New technology can now send a recorded weather warning straight to your telephone. Tift County has had the technology for two years and now several other communities are dialing into the same technology.

We posed the question "Are We Ready" to those communities to see if this new technology could keep you ahead of the storm.

When severe weather strikes many call 911 to report storm damage.

Caller: "Dogwood Hills Road. A tornado came through here and I don't see the houses. The houses are gone. We need some help."

But what if that were reversed, and instead an emergency dispatcher alerted you to the potential of severe weather before a storm hit? In Tift County that could happen, it's called reverse 911.

"Certainly we want to reserve something like that for a true emergency ie a tornado that might touch down and you've got roads that are inaccessible," said  Tift County E-911 Director/EMA Coordinator Scott Bowers.

Here's how it works, using the website, dispatchers can record a message for severe weather, a missing child, a hurricane alert, or other emergency and then depending on time, they can use either an in house bank of 12 phone lines or a mass calling center to alert every resident in Tift County.

"You certainly don't want to fire it up every time an event happens because unfortunately in this day and time something happens pretty much every day," Bowers said.

But in the last two years, despite severe weather in Tift County, they haven't used it at all.

"We've got to be diligent, because it is tax payer's money and when you go into it and call mass where your making several thousand calls in a matter of minutes, and that goes through an actual call center, then you're talking so many cents per call," Bowers says.

Now other communities are considering a similar system called Code Red. Lowndes County just got the system. Grady County has it and Dougherty County has applied for a grant for the system.

 "It's relatively inexpensive if you look at the overall cost of a single siren-- it's actually less than a single siren, a one year subscription to this company," says Jim Vaught Dougherty County Deputy EMA Director.

"Not only can we dial all of the residents here in Lowndes County that are registered very quickly, but we can also pinpoint an area if we had a hazardous materials spill that only impacted a small part of the county, then we could dial the system down so that it only notified those residents as well," said Lowndes County Clerk Paige Dukes.  

And considered more reliable because these system reach into a home unlike sirens. Code Red is different in that it's a subscriber service, there's no in house hardware. It can be accessed from anywhere. If Dougherty County gets the system, they plan to use it.

"If your on the phone or away it will leave a message, but it's designed to give you an early warning, says Vaught.

Tift County says they've been warned that the system may not be fast enough to warn residents in the case of a tornado.

"The companies will tell you upfront that it's not ideally used for a tornado, because number one, tornado's are so fast and unpredictable even with the technology the way it is a lot of times, the weather service doesn't know a tornado has touched down until somebody calls in or until its already on top of you,' said Scott Bowers.

But used in conjunction with other items like a weather radio and sirens Tift County feels, it's a good fit. "I whole heartedly believe in the weather radio being your number one source of weather related emergencies," said Bowers.

Other counties are more convinced this new technology could save lives. Albany and Valdosta have promised to use Code Red in the event of a tornado warning, as an additional warning to sirens, broadcast alerts from WALB, or weather radios.

 "There are a tremendous amount of communities throughout Florida that have contracted with code red for the same system for specifically weather emergencies," Dukes said.

By keeping up with technology, they hope to stay ahead of bad weather. In Tift County's case, we question if they're doing all they can to keep the community ahead of the storm, if they have an early warning system they never use. Residents may not be ready if severe weather strikes.

In Lowndes County residents can register their land line or cell phone with the county by simply logging on the county's website. We've provided a link to that site through our website

As always WALB News Ten looks to keep you aware of severe weather through our 24-7 weather channel and regular updates on WALB.