The Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management unveiled a new statewide emergency alert system earlier this week that will send text and other messages to state residents in case of an emergency.
Called Alert Iowa, the system will provide the state’s 99 counties with access to a single statewide notification system that provides local control over how and when to disseminate emergency and public safety messages to residents. Counties already using other emergency notification systems can switch to the state’s system at no additional cost.
“This is a powerful tool, and a tool that I will trust will give us a lot of additional value in warning citizens of additional danger,” Mark Schouten, director of the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said during the state’s annual homeland security conference.
Residents living in counties where the Alert Iowa system is used will be able to choose the types of alerts they receive, such as severe weather, 911 outages or winter storms.
The system can send alerts to landline telephones and wireless phones, and via text messaging, email, fax machines, TTY/TDD and social media. Alert Iowa can also send photos, audio files and reference links with alert messages to provide more information.
The system also has enhanced geo-coding capabilities. Schouten said, during testing, residents within a 5-mile area in one county were alerted using an emergency notification system when concerns were raised after a person left custody at a local hospital. Local residents began contacting law enforcement within minutes after the geo-coded message was sent, and the patient was quickly found, he said.
In addition, Alert Iowa utilizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) to send imminent emergency and public safety messages through the Emergency Alert System, NOAA Weather Radio and the Wireless Emergency Alerts system.
Schouten said planning for Alert Iowa began in early 2013 after state officials determined that 53 Iowa counties were paying nearly $600,000 to vendors for individually operated notification systems, while 15 counties used a free system with limited capabilities.
With such a spread-out system, the state saw the system as not only a way to cut cost for counties but also as a means of creating a unified system that would make it easier to reach citizens across the state instead of trying to deal with a disparate range of systems. It also brought an added benefit to 31 counties that had no emergency notification system due to a lack of funding in many cases.
“We believe it will be a tremendous asset to the state of Iowa and the counties and cities that use it,” Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds said.
So far, 34 of Iowa’s 99 counties have signed up to use the Alert Iowa system, officials said. It is expected the remainder of counties will come on board in the near future. As counties begin to use the system, they will notify residents and provide instruction on how to sign up for alerts.