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Suffolk to improve emergency notification system

A tree crashed through two homes on Jupiter

A tree crashed through two homes on Jupiter Lane in Levittown during a June storm. (June 24, 2010) Photo Credit: Kevin Imm

Suffolk residents will soon have a new text message option for receiving notification of impending storms and other emergencies, one of several steps the county is taking to improve its emergency readiness after calls during a March storm swamped its 911 system.

Given the explosion in cell phone use, officials said, the county also plans to set aside more of its 911 lines to exclusively accept calls from cell phones rather than land lines. Four additional 911 call takers will be hired and cross-trained to dispatch emergency personnel.

"This past winter and spring reinforced the unpredictability of Mother Nature," County Executive Steve Levy said Thursday.

He said the new measures will make a good emergency system better and improve the county's ability to communicate with the public during crises, especially when information needs to be delivered fast.

The March 13 storm hit with surprising force, prompting a surge in 911 calls. In Suffolk, 1 in 5 callers couldn't get through and hung up; in Nassau County, that figure was 1 in 7. Many of the calls were redundant - more than one caller notifying authorities about the same downed wire or tree limb.

Shortly after the storm, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said he would dedicate $7 million to boost the number of 911 call-taking consoles at a public safety complex being built in New Cassel, from 24 to about 40. That money was committed and the work is under way.

The cost of the Suffolk system will be about $150,000 and will be paid for with federal grant dollars, officials said. Nassau County already offers a similar service to its residents, and the Long Island Power Authority, which also faced criticism after the storm, plans to do so starting next year.

Suffolk officials plan to unveil details about the new service within the next week and tell residents about where and how they can sign up.

Sending text messages to cell phones and other wireless electronic devices to warn the public of storms and other emergencies is common. A state service called New York Alert already has 26,082 subscribers in Suffolk, one of 29 counties in the New York Alert network.

Suffolk officials said New York Alert is useful but not tailored to local residents. The county's new system, called Code Red, will allow the release of truly urgent messages on a platform not saturated with alerts about traffic accidents and routine changes in weather, they said.

Plus, officials said, redundancy can be good. Dennis Michalski, a spokesman for the State Emergency Management Office agrees.

"Do you always want to put all your eggs in one basket?" Michalski said. "From our standpoint, it makes perfect sense."

Nassau also is part of New York Alert.

Preparing for emergencies

Suffolk County is taking several steps to boost its readiness for severe storms and other emergency events. Boosting the capacity of its 911 system to absorb urgent calls is one focus. Here are some of the actions being taken.

Institute a new system that will allow residents to get text messages about approaching storms and other emergencies. The $150,000 cost is being paid for with federal grant money.

  • Hire four new 911 call takers, who are also trained to dispatch emergency personnel. COST: $146,996 a year.

  • Given the prevalence of cell phones, redistribute incoming 911 lines so that more are dedicated to taking cell rather than land line calls. COST: about $3,000.
  • During high 911 call volume, inform waiting callers by taped message that if their call is a nonemergency, to contact 852-COPS, rather than 911.

    - WILL VAN SANT

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