Lake of the Ozarks upgrades emergency alert system

Friday, February 8, 2008 | 2:46 p.m. CST; updated 5:03 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Visitors to central Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks will be able to get state-of-the-art emergency alerts on their cell phones after Camden County’s sheriff became one of the first rural agencies nationwide to install a text message and e-mail warning system.

Sheriff John Page said Friday that the system has been running since the start of the year and allows his force to reach more people faster with less manpower, all critical elements in an emergency.

Residents and visitors can sign up on the Web for text messages, e-mail alerts and landline phone calls in case of emergencies such as severe weather, fire or traffic jams in the popular boating and lake resort area.

The Lake of the Ozarks is one of the Midwest’s top summer getaways, drawing visitors from Kansas City, St. Louis, Des Moines, Chicago and beyond.

Public safety experts said Camden County is an early adopter, especially for a rural agency.

Cell phone and e-mail alerts have become common at universities and colleges around the country since the Virginia Tech shootings in April. They are starting to spread to public safety agencies, but firm numbers are hard to come by, experts said.

Kevin McGinnis from the National Association of State EMS Officials said the systems so far exist sporadically throughout the country, mainly on campuses.

“In rural areas, it is very much the exception to the rule, but it is something that we really need to develop,” McGinnis said.

Richard Mirgon from the Association of Public-Safety Communication Officials said cell phone and e-mail alerts are a necessary technological update. With new media such as satellite radio, the established emergency broadcast system via radio and TV reaches fewer people in emergencies.

Camden County’s system is from Houston-based CellCast Technologies. The sheriff said it cost about $5,000, a discount because the county is testing a beta version.

Page said summer boating season can raise the population in his county of about 40,000 people to over 100,000 and on some popular weekends over 250,000.

“We’ve got a lot of people in the summer months out on the lake, and they’re not listening to the radio. Weather fronts can come over the hills and be there fast,” Page said.

The sheriff’s department is just starting to publicize the system and asking people to sign up. Part of that effort will be through the local chambers of commerce and visitor centers and will include steps such as advertising in free coupon booklets.

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