Living in Kansas, most people associate emergency warning systems with outdoor tornado sirens. But local officials say that is not the only way — or the best way — to receive information during an emergency.
Several area agencies have free wireless alert systems available to the public to get information out during an emergency.
The Riley County Emergency Management Department set up a system three years ago to cover 2.5 million people in 23 counties through a grant by the federal government, said Emergency Management Director Pat Collins.
The Immediate Response Information System, known as IRIS, is designed to inform different groups of people in the area of an assortment of information in a variety of ways. Collins said officials currently have 62 groups including Wildcat Creek Flooding, Red Cross, Amateur Radio Operators, and Riley County as a whole.
Riley County has about 75,000 residents, and most are not signed up for the information, Collins said. He said IRIS currently has 1,484 people signed up, but his hope is to get more people to use the system. The grant will run out in 2015, when county officials must decide how or whether to continue funding the emergency alert system. Collins said it costs about $1 per person per year to host the service.
He said users can choose which types of emergencies to be alerted to when they sign up. The system allows people to add up to three phones, pagers and emails to one user’s account. From there, the user can choose which alerts go to through as a text message, a voice phone call or an email. He said in addition to the groups they set up, people can also receive weather alerts and Riley County Police alerts. Officials are also working on setting up a group that will alert school employees and parents of students.
He said that the system can be tailored to alert specific groups or a specific area. For example, he said if a school needs to be locked down, emergency management personnel can draw a circle around the school, with the center being the school. Then an alert will go out inside that specific area informing parents, teachers and residents in the area of what they should do. He said the only drawback to the system is if people are not signed up, they will not receive the alerts.
During severe weather, he said the system is a great tool for people inside buildings. He said the sirens were always designed to notify people outside of immediate danger, but the sound of the sirens doesn’t always penetrate the walls. He said the IRIS system sends out alerts from the National Weather Service and is a great way to be notified in the event of a tornado inside a building.
While he said the system is extremely comprehensive, it shouldn’t be citizens’ only source of notifications. He said people should use other resources at their disposal to notify them in case of an emergency.
“I get calls all the time with people saying, ‘I didn’t hear the sirens,’” Collins said. “You need other ways to be notified. The more you have set up, the better your chances.”
Although Collins is the administrator of the system, the Riley County Police Department has its own administrators to notify the public when an emergency occurs through the RCPD.
Information Officer Matthew Droge said the department decided to train and give administrative access to all the dispatchers. He said if there is a wreck in town that will block traffic, a power outage, or a report of someone with a gun in an area, like at City Park, the dispatchers can send out an emergency alert to the subscribers notifying them. He said that is useful because can keep those who are notified away from the area or let them change their driving routes.
In addition to notifying the public, he said it helps get the emergency services out to where they need to be faster. He said prior to setting up the system in May, dispatchers had to leave their desk to make a phone call to various organizations in an emergency situation. With the IRIS system over the Internet, the dispatchers can stay at their computers and send out a text message to any of the 62 groups set up by the county.
He said to start receiving messages, all one has to do is get signed up with through Riley County Emergency Services via the Riley County website or call the emergency management office.
Droge said in addition to the emergency notifications, they send out information through Twitter, but those messages are usually non-emergent messages.
He said the department has only sent out a few messages through IRIS, but send Twitter messages out frequently. He said they send out IRIS messages sparingly because “we want people to pay attention to them.”
Kansas State University has a different system to notify people of emergencies not connected with IRIS.
Steven Galitzer, director of environmental health and safety at K-State, said the university didn’t start looking into getting a wireless system until after the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. He said they “jumped on the bandwagon” with other universities around the country in developing an emergency alert system that could be sent out via the Internet to notify people on campus of situations like a bomb threat, a shooter on campus or even a gas leak in a building.
Like the IRIS system, the campus system sends out weather alerts if the user signs up to receive them. He said all incoming faculty and students are given the option to sign up a maximum of five different phone numbers to receive notifications. He said in addition, anyone with a K-State email address will automatically receive all notifications sent out by the system. He said this allows students, parents of students, faculty and staff members to receive notifications about emergencies effecting campus.
Although it is easy for students and employees to sign up for the notifications, they have a way for community members to sign up, too. Galitzer said the system is intended for K-Staters, but community members who come to campus frequently can sign up for notifications as well. He said those who want to receive the notifications have to fill out a form and state why they want to be added, but mostly it is to know who is receiving the messages.
He said the system also has “beacons” in all classrooms that hold more than 50 students. He said the beacon is a little box that has sirens and flashing lights, and a message scrolls across a screen on the beacon in an emergency situation. They have also fitted three outdoor sirens with the ability to broadcast the message vocally outside. He said they converted two sirens on main campus and “took over” the city/county siren near Jardine Apartments. Like Collins and Droge, he said the outdoor sirens are for people outside, not for people inside buildings on campus.
Prior to implementing the system in 2007, the campus had a phone calling system that would call and leave a message. He said that was mainly used for department heads to send information out to their staff, “kind of like a phone tree.”
He said the implementation of the system was part of the “Active Shooter Program,” but K-State also uses the system for emergencies like high winds, snow storms, closures on campus, tornadoes and other serious situations.
Another perk of the system, he said, was its ability to override the website during an emergency situation. He said if an emergency occurs, the administrator can post the emergency situation, and it would override the website and appear to anyone using the website at the time.
Galitzer said K-State has 12,006 text messaging users, 44,000 email users and 13,000 voice phone users signed up. Although those are larger numbers than other emergency systems in the area, Galitzer said it is not as many as he would like.
As with all wireless emergency systems, Galitzer said the system’s only drawback is the cell phone service provider.
“It only works as well as your carrier works,” he said. “It is completely dependent on how well that provider sends out the messages.”
He said they have had complaints every semester from people not receiving the messages. He said that is because the cell towers sometimes fail because “it just overwhelms the system.”
He said because of that drawback, it is good for people to sign up for more than one way to be notified.
While IRIS and K-State concern themselves with very specific groups, The Manhattan Mercury has developed an alert system that encompasses more than just Riley County or K-State. The web editor signed up with several agencies to receive the alerts, then took those alerts and compiled them to give residents a place to sign up with multiple emergency systems.
Jelani Yancey, web editor for The Mercury, said people can sign up for alerts from Pottawatomie County, Riley County, school districts 383, 384, 380 and 379, Fort Riley and more on the website. People do not have to be subscribers to the paper to receive the alerts, which cover everything from sports scores to severe weather to school closings. To subscribe to the free service, people can to go to The Mercury’s site at www.themercury.com and click on “sign up now” in the “Text Alert” box on the right side of the page. Currently, the Mercury has 157 users signed up to receive emergency alerts. Like the other systems, a user can add more than one phone or email address to the system.