When emergencies happen, six Bergen County, New Jersey, communities will be able to contact their residents with an automatic blitz of speed-dialed phone calls, telling people of an emergency in their midst and what they should do about it. The calling system puts telemarketing-style technology to good use by pairing it with computer maps, at the discretion of public safety officials.
The six communities - Closter, Fair Lawn, Paramus, Rutherford, Saddle Brook, and Tenafly - have signed up with an Albany, N.Y., company that provides emergency phone notifications for municipalities, businesses, jails and other sensitive locations.
At least nine other Bergen County communities have expressed an interest in joining the system.
The phone system, capable of making 15,000 calls per hour, can dial every home and business in town or just those along a particular street. It can deliver a professionally recorded announcement or an up-to-the-minute warning. It can call everyone who lives and works near the rising river, the overturned tanker, the missing child or the wanted suspect.
There's only one catch: People with unlisted phone numbers are excluded from the call list. Getting their names on the list, however, is a simple matter of calling or writing local emergency management officials and providing the number.
"We need to get the message out," said Tom Metzler, director of emergency management in Fair Lawn. "We do not have their numbers in the system."
The system was installed May 1, and although used in other parts of New Jersey and the United States for years, has not yet been used in Bergen County, where some communities rely on aging sirens to warn residents of dangers and others have no warning system at all. Clifton and Nutley have had the system for more than 10 years and have found it helpful for transmitting crime alerts and warning of water emergencies, said Nutley Emergency Management Coordinator Fred Scalera.
Emergency managers from the six communities have scheduled a formal announcement today, with a special push to get people with unlisted phone numbers to join the system.
Metzler said that was especially important to make the system work, because at least 30 percent of Bergen County homes have unlisted numbers. He stressed that unlisted phone numbers will be used only in emergencies, and will not be available for normal police or municipal business. The system can also call cellular phone numbers, but it is up to each community to decide whether to include cellular phones.
The company that runs the system, Community Alert Network, started 20 years ago as a notification system for missing children. It now operates in 40 states and three provinces in Canada, serving a wide range of clients, including prisons, nuclear power plants, and water districts, said Ken Baechel, the chief executive officer.
On Sept. 11, for example, he said the company called everyone within two miles of a California airport to tell them the airport was closing down; notified people near a South Carolina building of a bomb threat; and called every employee and supplier at a large mall to tell them it would close that day.
The six Bergen County communities are excited that the system can be tailored to call phones in any particular location.
"We have two rail lines, the river, plus Route 80 going through Saddle Brook," said the township's emergency management coordinator, Mike Seitz. He said he wishes he had been able to use the system during Tropical Storm Floyd, and when the township sprayed for West Nile virus last year.
Each of the six municipalities paid $6,251 to join the program, some using tax dollars and others using donations from businesses. Under the contract with the six municipalities, Community Alert Network will charge each community $3,225 in each of the next four years to maintain its database, and also charges 25 cents for each emergency call, which emergency directors said is a reasonable expense.
"It gives us some great latitude for notification," said Steven Mehl, Paramus' emergency management director. "If we have a storm and the telephone lines go down, then we're stuck. But it's better than what we have now, which is nothing."