It’s been 3 1/2 years since Gallatin County’s Community Notification System was upgraded to provide customized text, phone and e-mail alerts to county residents about events ranging from weather conditions to road closures to emergency law enforcement situations, but the sophisticated tool remains grossly underutilized, according to county officials.
Despite evidence indicating that people are as curious as ever about things happening around them, less than 5 percent of county residents are currently registered with the system, said Kevin Larsen, operations and training manager for the county’s Emergency Management department. By contrast, he noted, more than 20,000 county residents are signed up with the social media site “Next Door,” through which they can share and receive news about lost pets, suspicious characters, service providers, items for sale and so on in the neighborhoods where they live. By contrast, only 4,326 Gallatin County residents have registered for emergency notification alerts.
“It strikes me that here we are with a full capability and responsibility for alerting residents and we have less than 5 percent (of the county population) registered,” Larsen said. “That’s kind of disappointing.”
In an effort to improve those figures, officials are urging county residents to take a few minutes to sign up for the notifications at alerts.readygallatin.com. There citizens can select by which means they would like to be notified (landline, cell phone, text, e-mail), geographic areas they are concerned about, and the types of notifications they would like to see. An app is available for mobile devices, enabling users to receive alerts for areas where they are currently located and not just predetermined addresses.
Montana State University students and employees are registered automatically for the emergency notifications unless they opt out, and landline numbers are added to the system annually, enabling voice mail messages to be sent to those registered numbers. However, Larsen points out, fewer and fewer people are maintaining landlines. Similarly, people are watching less television and listening to less radio, making the antiquated Emergency Broadcast System ever more obsolete. In order for officials to be able to alert citizens wherever they are and with the method most tailored to their habits, citizens need to take the initiative to sign up, Larsen said.
He stressed that the system is secure and safe, and that the county does not share or sell information about users of the service.
“It’s a very security-driven system,” he said. “From our agency standpoint, we take that responsibility very seriously.”
In 2019, the system sent alerts about a barricaded person in Gallatin County, a missing elderly person in Belgrade, a roof collapse at Montana State University, and a shelter-in-place incident, also at MSU.