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May 10, 2013

In Our Opinion: Cellphone alert system can only help

The Daily Star

---- — Since the early days of radio, broadcasters have been able to break into programming to alert listeners about dangerous situations.

Today the technology exists to broadcast warnings to all cellphone users in an area.

Otsego County representatives recently decided to take advantage of a $27,000 Homeland Security and Emergency Management grant that will fund a cellphone emergency alert system for three years.

The first national emergency alert system was established during the Cold War. It eventually morphed into the Emergency Broadcast System, which many of us remember breaking into our favorite programming at least once a month for a test, and today is known as the Emergency Alert System.

While those are great for national emergencies, most emergencies only affect a small area.

Landline emergency alert systems have been in existence locally for a while. They have been used to send out alerts of school lockdowns, weather emergencies, police activity and more.

Folks can receive calls at home regarding local emergencies, but with more people dropping landline service or simply not being at home, many miss those messages, or receive them too late to make a difference.

There are ways people can get emergency messages while on the go — NY-Alert, following emergency service departments on social media, or checking local media websites — but they require the users to take action.

That’s why we are excited about the cellphone system.

Users won’t have to sign up — all cellphones in range of the cellular tower distributing the message will get the alert.

The system was recommended by Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts, the chairman of the county’s Public Safety Committee, and Sheriff Richard Devlin Jr.

Devlin said he backs the program because it can reach all the people with cellphones in a given geographical area, and provide them with crucial information about a tornado warning, a mass-casualty incident, a toxic materials spill or other emergency.

“Certainly, during the summer, we have a huge influx of tourists here,” Devlin said.

And that is where the current methods have the largest shortfall. People who aren’t from the area likely won’t know how to sign up for local alerts.

We also don’t understand one of the arguments against this program.

Several representatives, including Board Chairwoman Kathleen Clark, R-Otego, said they were concerned that the new alert would duplicate efforts of NY-Alert.

We feel it’s better to alert someone several times about a dangerous situation than not at all.

And we know the cellphone system won’t get everyone. Cellphone coverage is spotty at best in many areas, but this system certainly will help some who may not otherwise get the message.