New system 911 in reverse

Bill Tunick, Charleston County director of radio and telecommunications, discusses ALERT Charleston County on Wednesday.

Charleston County residents can sign up to receive free emergency alerts on their home, work or mobile telephones with a new system called ALERT Charleston County.

Residents can go to alert.charlestoncounty.org and sign up to receive emergency notices. Those who don't have computers can use one free at one of the public libraries. Or they can go to one of the county's three service centers and submit a paper registration form. Registering takes about five minutes.

The county will use the system to let people know if an emergency situation, such as a chemical release, fire or a criminal suspect at large, is happening in their neighborhood. And it will let them know what they should do to remain safe in the emergency.

Bill Tunick, the county's director of radio and telecommunications, said the system is a "reverse 911" system. Instead of residents calling county officials in an emergency, county officials call them.

People can register with their home phone, cell or work phone numbers, he said. And they can request that notification come via text message, he said.

But each phone number can only have one address connected to it.

Residents can, however, register different phone numbers for different locations, he said.

For instance, Tunick said, a parent might register with a home phone number to receive notices about emergencies close to his home. But that person might register with a cell phone number to get notices about emergencies near his child's school.

Since 2003, the county has had an emergency alert system that could send notices to home telephones, Charleston County sheriff's Maj. John Clark said. But the old system didn't work with cell phones.

Tunick said that 15 percent to 20 percent of county residents have only a cell phone, and no home telephone number.

Under the old system, Clark said, some of the most common reasons people were notified included alerts about missing persons and notices about a criminal suspect at large in a specific area.

Jamey Swigert, the county's telecommunications manager, demonstrated Wednesday how the system is activated. Someone in the county's 911 Dispatch Center can enter an address where the emergency is happening. Then he can define the area around the address in which residents might be in danger. The system pulls up phone numbers for all addresses in that zone and immediately begins sending emergency messages, he said.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or dknich@postandcourier.com.