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Storm warning -- City of DL looking closely at Instant Alert warning system

After hearing the benefits the Detroit Lakes Public Schools is reaping after signing on with Honeywell for the Instant Alert messaging system, the city is looking into it as well.

Incident Communications Consultant Danielle Ritter spoke to the Public Safety Committee and other city staff members Monday afternoon about the newest program, Instant Alert Plus, which was designed for cities.

"This would replace the old system of sirens around town," she said.

Sirens would alert during severe weather, but townspeople didn't know where the weather was or what the weather was. This system will send out a message to anyone in the program whatever emergency message the city wants sent out. It can notify by e-mail, phone, cell phone, text, basically any way imaginable short of door-to-door knocking.

With the Instant Alert Plus system, there is nothing new to install (phone lines, software, Internet, etc.) it is all done through existing infrastructure.

Someone designated to send out the messages will notify Honeywell what message needs to be sent, and the company will send it out to whomever the city specifies.

Different "teams" can be made to determine who will receive the messages. For example, a team could consist of just those on the fire department. Another team could be the people who live on the 500 block of Roosevelt Avenue. The possibilities are endless.

Messages that can be sent out range anywhere from missing child to severe weather, water contamination to city government announcements. The system can also be used as a pager for the fire department.

Being used as a pager, Ritter explained that it can be used to fill a quota as well. If there are 15 firefighters needed for a call, the system will page all the firefighters until 15 respond, saying they can come to the fire, and then the system will stop paging firefighters.

The Honeywell system can send out 175,000 messages every 15 minutes. For the quoted 14,000 population for the Detroit Lakes and surrounding area system, it could send out messages within minutes.

People don't have to live in Detroit Lakes to receive the message either. A cabin owner who lives in North Dakota could sign up for the service and receive messages.

Ritter demonstrated the system by sending out a fake message to her own cell phone, e-mail and text. She also sent the message to Police Chief Kel Keena's phone, who hung up before the message was completed. Something that the system records and called him back.

"It's trying to make sure to deliver the message," Ritter said.

If a cell phone has bad reception and cuts in and out during the message, the system will also call the cell phone back to re-deliver the message.

With the system tracking how people respond to the emergency messages, Ritter said it "gives a way to track for liability also." If someone says they never got a message, the city can look and say 'yes, you did, you just hung up' or whatever the case may be.

Pictures can be sent via fax or e-mail as well. Ritter gave the example that if someone has written a bad check at one store location and was caught on surveillance, police can send that image to other merchants throughout town, warning them this person is writing bad checks.

Although sold on the idea, city officials have yet to determine who will pay for the system.

For the 14,000 population, with those users having the ability to be notified through 10 different avenues (cell phone, phone, e-mail, etc.), Honeywell will provide the service for $17,800 a year. The company requires cities to sign a three-year contract.

That works out to about $1.25 per person. The city is determining whether to charge city residents that fee, charge anyone who wants to sign up, or whatever other process they can brainstorm.

The Instant Alert system for schools has been in existence for five years, and the Plus system for one year. Ritter said there are about 500 cities already taking advantages of the system, but Detroit Lakes would be the first city in Minnesota.

Public Utilities Superintendent Curt Punt pointed out that the city would have likely paid for the sirens to be purchased and installed, which would have cost much more than this system.

Keena and Fire Chief Jeff Swanson said they would like the surrounding areas -- like the three townships covered by the Detroit Lakes Fire Department or even the entire county -- to be involved as well, and help with the cost of the system.

If the city decides to go forward with the system and provides the set-up information to Honeywell, turnaround time is about 8-10 weeks before the messaging system will go into operation.