When trouble hits, warnings sound

Community Alert Network, sirens signal emergencies

Posted: Saturday, March 04, 2000

One of the most precious resources in a disaster is accurate, timely information.

To that end, the borough has set up a traditional warning siren system across the peninsula. When the sirens blare, people know to turn their radios on and tune in to local stations. For most residents, that would be KSRM 920 AM.

Since November 1997, the Kenai Peninsula Borough also has turned to the Community Alert Network to help provide the valuable commodity of knowledge.

CAN, which is based in Albany, N.Y., telephones people using an automated system and plays a recorded message. The messages are recorded by people dealing directly with the emergency and are used to inform listeners where to get updated information and what action they should take.

According to John Alcantra, borough emergency management coordinator, CAN uses incoming long distance lines and numbers acquired through the 911 database. "It doesn't interfere with local phone lines," Alcantra said.

The system has been used three times in actual emergencies, as well as several tests, totaling approximately 10,000 calls. Most recently it was used to inform 111 Seldovia households of an oil spill into the city septic system Nov. 30, 1999, asking them to restrict waste water usage.

"It's proven itself to be an invaluable tool," said Alcantra.

"We've never had one person call and say, 'Why was I called?'" he continued. "We get dozens of calls saying, 'Wow, this is a great thing.'"

CAN, founded in 1983, is in use across the United States.

"We're one of 600 clients," Alcantra said. "They've used it for missing children's reports (and) search and rescue operations."

The initial investment was provided by a grant from the state, and from donations from Tesoro Alaska Petroleum Co., Unocal Alaska Resources and Phillips Petroleum Co.

Alcantra said using the 911 database ensures all area numbers are accessed, even those that are unlisted.

"You're in the 911 database whether you want to be or not," he said. "It's updated the same way."

Alcantra said CAN updates the number list at least once a week, to keep things as current as possible.

In the wake of an explosion at the Unocal plant in Nikiski on Aug. 20, 1999, company officials -- with borough permission -- placed a message telling residents what happened, what was being done and to listen to radio station KSRM for more information.

The only complaints ever received about CAN resulted from that message. Several residents called saying it was not loud enough to hear clearly.

Even so, approximately 2,300 people received calls within 36 minutes.

The system is designed to make approximately 6,000 calls in an hour, based on a 30-second recording.

"In the (July 1, 1998,) Homer cannery explosion, we were able to provide 6,400 phone numbers with emergency information," Alcantra said. He credited using a 20-second message for the increased efficiency.

Alcantra said the minimal charge for sending messages is based on the volume of numbers to be reached.

Unocal paid for the message after the August explosion. The bill was $2,300.

"They couldn't believe how cheap it was," Alcantra said.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough is the first government in Alaska to use CAN. The pulp mill in Ketchikan was the first Alaska operation to contract the service, using it to keep employees informed. Since the mill's closing, only the KPB has used it in the state.

Alcantra said one drawback to the system is that it can only use land lines and not cellular. He said the cellular companies simply do not make the numbers available.

"We don't have any of the cell phones on there," he said, "probably not for several years."

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