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Got a cell phone? Sign up again for emergency alerts

SoVaNow.com / July 01, 2019
Today is the start of a new system for emergency notifications — phone, text and email warnings of approaching storms, tornadoes, floods and the like — as Halifax County Emergency Services makes the switchover to a new automatic alert provider.

Emergency Services is dropping its incumbent vendor, Civic Ready, in favor of a new, cheaper, and potentially more effective system provided by Everbridge, an industry rival.

“This [new] system is not that different from a lot of others, but it is a little more economical and a little more user-friendly,” said Steve Dishman, emergency services coordinator for the county.

While people who receive notifications through their landline telephones don’t have to do anything with the change in vendors — their numbers have been ported over automatically to the new system — those accustomed to receiving emergency alerts on their cell phones, via automated voice message or text, or through email will need to re-register for the system.

To renew your registration, go to the county’s local government website, http://www.halifaxcountyva.gov, and look down the page for the emergency services sign-up link. Individuals can also call 434-476-3300, extension 3330 to have the Emergency Services Department enter this information for you.

“Even if you signed up in the previous system, you’ll need to go in and register in this one,” said Dishman. “That’s an inconvenience because we wanted to collect the [registration] data and move it over, but it’s not formatted in a way that makes it possible.”

With the number of serious storms that have hit the community over the past year — including a microburst on Friday afternoon that brought down trees and damaged property — Dishman acknowledged that some people could get caught flat-footed by storms if they don’t make the transition to the new system promptly.

To lessen that possibility, and encourage signups, Emergency Services will send out a message today notifying cell phone users to sign up again to receive alerts, and how to do so. Text messages will include links to the county website.

Because trying to operate the new system and the old system at the same time would work “not very well,” Dishman said the department opted to go ahead with the changeover while emphasizing the need for individuals to take action on their end to stay in the information loop.

“Anytime you make changes or updates or anything else, there is a concern” about leaving behind those who signed into the old system and don’t re-register, said Dishman. “That’s the reason we’re trying to put this out there as quickly as we can.

Although it will force people to sign up again, Dishman said there are several advantages to using Everbridge’s system. For one, users can opt in to receive messages only related to their particular area and interests. They also can indicate hours, such as overnight, when they don’t want to be disturbed by messages. Those preferences would be overridden in case of serious emergencies, such as tornadoes and dangerous storms.

Dishman said, “For example, some people in one part of the county don’t need to worry about water approaching the road in another part of the county they don’t plan to go to.”

Everbridge will send a call, a text, and an email to anyone who signs up. The call will bear a local number, Dishpan said it would likely be the county’s 434-576-3300 number, but that the call would also leave a voicemail. The text and email would be transcriptions of the call.

Dishman said the voicemail was critical to reaching people who do not answer strange calls. “Even I do that. If I don’t know the number, I let it go to voice mail,” he said.

The message will be similar to prior emergency alerts, beginning with “This is an important message from the county emergency service…”

The Everbridge system is costing the county less than $11,000 per year, where the prior system cost more than $13,000. Dishman said the switch had been part of the process of renegotiating the county’s three-year contract with its automated notification company.

Dishman said the most important reason for picking Everbridge was to tie county emergency services closer to state and federal agencies, such as VDOT, the National Weather Service, State Police, and other organizations that use the vendor.

“We were trying to look for something that would tie things together a little more and maybe some economic value,” Dishman said.

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