Suffolk County greets hurricane season with updated alerting system

Long Island's Suffolk County is improving its emergency communications for National Hurricane Preparedness Week

Last September, as the East Coast prepared for Tropical Storm Hermine, the emergency broadcasting system accidentally sent out an evacuation alert for all of Long Island's Suffolk County. The alert was meant just for Fire Island, but that part was truncated.

That won't happen again, said Joel Vetter, the county's deputy chief EMS Officer.

This week is national Hurricane Preparedness Week, and the county tested the new updated system last week to make sure it works.

But the county has been doing a lot more than just ensuring that longer messages can get through.

Over the past few years, the county has been rolling out a new emergency communication platform, using tools provided by Rave Mobile Safety.

Rave currently serves more than 1,000 state and local agencies, educational institutions, and corporations with alerting systems, 911 communication platforms, and emergency response apps. Today, the company processes 10 percent of all 911 calls, and covers 55 million Americans.

Rave lets emergency response agencies communicate instantly with people in danger via multiple channels, including text messages, emails, and automated telephone calls.

And it offers the county a great deal more flexibility than what it had before with the emergency broadcast system and its own internal database of vulnerable people such as those on life support machines.

Say, for example, there's a storm on the way, said Vetter. People who take the ferry should ideally get an alert well ahead of time, so that they can make plans to stay on the mainland.

The county has worked with the ferry companies to get their customers into the system, so that the alerts can go out to just that group, in time to make a difference.

And it's not just for ferry passengers and patients on life support machines. It can be useful for the handicapped, for older residents with Alzheimer's, or for any other resident.

"I am a father of four, and two children have special needs," he said. "Having that alert information is key. Now they're in the program, and it travels with all my devices, and it allows me to build a family communication plan."

The county first began creating lists of people with special needs 15 years ago, using paper forms and manual checks every few months to confirm that the details were still accurate. The system was expensive, time-consuming, slow, and was only able to handle a couple of hundred people, out of a population of about 1.5 million.

When an emergency occurred, responders had to manually figure out which people needed help first.

"We weren't meeting the basic needs," Vetter said.

The county began making plans to switch to a new system several years ago, and began rolling out the Rave platform in 2011, just in time for Hurricane Irene.

"We were actually in beta test mode, and I made a command decision to turn it on," said Vetter.

Since then, the county has been upgrading the system or adding new functionality every 14 to 16 months, he said.

In 2012, just in time for Hurricane Sandy, the county rolled out Rave's Smart911 system, which automatically brings up residents' profiles during 911 calls.

During Winter Storm Nemo in 2013, the county added functionality that allowed them to send update texts to people stuck in their cars that the county was still working on getting them help.

"We told them, this is what's happening, we're removing the most vulnerable first -- the cars that have no fuel, no heat, that have elderly or the young, whatever it was," he said.

Vetter said he could send out these messages from anywhere he was, as long as there was an internet connection, with no delays.

Today, there are over 48,000 profiles of Suffolk County residents in the Rave system.

And the profiles are automatically updated when participants interact with the system, and if there are no interactions, it automatically sends out email verification and places robocalls.

There are no delays. As profiles are added or updated, residents are immediately in the system, and instantly begin receiving emergency alerts and information.

Since location information is built in, the county can send out very specific alerts, very quickly. People living in a flood zone can get important information about preventing flood damage. Those connected to a particular water main that was damaged can get an alert that they need to boil their drinking water.

"With the Rave messaging, I have the ability to send a message any time I want," he said. "We use it for all kinds of things. We're doing 80,000 text messages a day out of the Rave system, for both emergencies and non-emergencies."

Next week, the county is adding the ability to respond to an active killer situation, adding in every county employee and their work locations and mobile contact information.

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