Statewide emergency alerts unlikely for Iowa, but system could save money

Legislative subcommittee's main questions about proposal focus on privacy

James Q. Lynch
Published: February 10 2014 | 2:06 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:26 am in
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A state disaster services agency is proposing a statewide system to handle mass emergency notifications, but can’t think of a circumstance when it would “fire off” a statewide alert.

However, the system, which was included in Gov. Terry Branstad’s budget, could expand mass notification and emergency messaging systems from 53 counties to 99 and cut the cost by about one-third.

Those 53 counties that provide emergency notifications for tornadoes, flash flooding and law enforcement situations, for example, are spending about $600,000 a year, according to John Benson of the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“We feel pretty confident we can provide the statewide system for $400,000,” he told a House Public Safety Subcommittee on House Study Bill 595 Monday. That’s based on more than a dozen replies to a request for information from vendors.

While the system could be used to deliver an emergency warning to residents across the state “for the really big ones when you need to reach out and grab everyone,” Benson can’t think of an example.

More likely, he said, decisions to alert residents would be made by local law enforcement and emergency management agencies.

“Our goal is to give local folks a tool to use and local folks would determine how to use it,” he said. However, “we don’t want it to be used to advertise the middle school bake sale.”

The proposal makes a “whole lot of sense,” according to Kent Hartwig of the Iowa Emergency Management Association. “It will free up resources and create a statewide network rather than a piecemeal network.”

Most of the subcommittee’s questions dealt with privacy issues. Benson said Iowans could opt-in – that is chose to receive notifications – via landlines, cellphones, email or social media. If they don’t opt-in, they wouldn’t receive the alerts.

Other questions dealt with whether information Iowans in those counties that offer mass emergency notification now voluntarily provided – cellphone numbers and email addresses – would be passed on to the state and FEMA. The answer would depend on the counties’ agreements with vendors.

Lobbyists for local law enforcement, cities and counties also voiced the concern that once the statewide network is established the state might lose interest in funding it and their communities would have to foot the bill.

Specifically, they don’t want to see revenue from the 911 surcharge used to fund the system.

The bill now goes to the full House Public Safety Committee.

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