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Get with the program or get out of the way

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By Ben Carlson

We drink potentially contaminated water during boil water advisories.

We’re at the mercy of a handful of tornado sirens to warn us when a twister is on its way.

Rail cars loaded with God-knows-what rumble each day through the heart of our city mere yards from schools and homes, not to mention police and fire departments.

The common thread with each of these risks is that when or if they occur, our city and county governments have no effective means with which to warn us.

Isn’t that special?

As the first decade of the 21st century winds down, Anderson County is mired in a 1980s mindset.

Boil water advisory? Put an alert on a cable station no one watches or hope folks find out at a drive-though window when they can’t get a Diet Coke.

Tornado watch or warning? Sound the sirens that few can hear unless they’re outside and hope people just happen to be watching TV or listening to their weather radio.

Train derailment? Hope it happens outside the city unless, that is, it happens in Alton and prevailing breeze blows the poisonous cloud back toward Lawrenceburg. At least then the police stations and 911 Center will have a few minutes to operate before they are evacuated.

It doesn’t have to be this way, folks, and it’s time for those who can fix this problem to install a countywide phone notification system similar to what the schools currently use.

For about $10,000 a year, the schools are able to notify parents and those on each student’s emergency list of school closings and other pertinent events.

That’s money well spent and is something that today’s consumers not only appreciate but demand. We’re purging ourselves of cables — TV, phone and otherwise — and becoming a wireless society accustomed to accessing and receiving information whenever and wherever we choose.

Those whose job it is to make that information available (including this newspaper) can fight these changes but should keep a resume handy because it’s a fight they will surely lose.

That includes local officials who for too long have ignored this reality and should either get with the program or get out of the way.

For years an effort to install what is called “reverse 911” has been stymied, stalled or just plain ignored. That system requires exclusive or shared access to numerous phone lines, which is expensive.

Today, though, there are a host of companies offering similar services. We spoke with one last week, CodeRed.com, that provides emergency services for communities across the country. A spokesperson said a county the size of Anderson could reasonably expect to spend $7,500 to $10,000 a year on a system that could notify each home in the county of an emergency in under 10 minutes.

That service includes a customized website where residents can enter any contact phone number they wish to use, eliminating the “a lot of people don’t have home phones anymore” problem. It also places no burden on city and county staff to create a database.

In short, the only way a resident isn’t alerted to a problem is if he or she opts out.

To think the two water districts, city and county can’t combine to afford that small amount of money is just ridiculous, regardless the current economy. (If, like so many things, joining forces for this is forbidden by the state, then our state senator and representative need to get that changed.)

At $10,000, we’re talking a buck and change a year per household. And let’s not forget that $10,000 is but a tenth of what the fiscal court OK’d in increased taxes last year by allowing the Extension to become a taxing district.

We love the Extension and its services, but have to admit that getting an automated call about a pending tornado is a just a wee bit more pressing than making sure our soil isn’t too acidic to grow tomatoes.

It’s time for those we trust with public safety to get their priorities straight, stop bickering over how the 911 Center is funded and operated (behind closed doors, that is) and at least pretend that the safety and well-being of their constituents, not who controls what, is why they’re there.