Last September, as the East Coast prepared for Tropical Storm Hermine, the emergency broadcasting system accidentally sent out an evacuation alert for all of Long Island's Suffolk County. The alert was meant just for Fire Island, but that part was truncated.
That won't happen again, said Joel Vetter, the county's deputy chief EMS Officer.
This week is national Hurricane Preparedness Week, and the county tested the new updated system last week to make sure it works.
But the county has been doing a lot more than just ensuring that longer messages can get through.
Over the past few years, the county has been rolling out a new emergency communication platform, using tools provided by Rave Mobile Safety.
Rave currently serves more than 1,000 state and local agencies, educational institutions, and corporations with alerting systems, 911 communication platforms, and emergency response apps. Today, the company processes 10 percent of all 911 calls, and covers 55 million Americans.
Rave lets emergency response agencies communicate instantly with people in danger via multiple channels, including text messages, emails, and automated telephone calls.
And it offers the county a great deal more flexibility than what it had before with the emergency broadcast system and its own internal database of vulnerable people such as those on life support machines.
Say, for example, there's a storm on the way, said Vetter. People who take the ferry should ideally get an alert well ahead of time, so that they can make plans to stay on the mainland.
The county has worked with the ferry companies to get their customers into the system, so that the alerts can go out to just that group, in time to make a difference.
And it's not just for ferry passengers and patients on life support machines. It can be useful for the handicapped, for older residents with Alzheimer's, or for any other resident.
"I am a father of four, and two children have special needs," he said. "Having that alert information is key. Now they're in the program, and it travels with all my devices, and it allows me to build a family communication plan."
The county first began creating lists of people with special needs 15 years ago, using paper forms and manual checks every few months to confirm that the details were still accurate. The system was expensive, time-consuming, slow, and was only able to handle a couple of hundred people, out of a population of about 1.5 million.
When an emergency occurred, responders had to manually figure out which people needed help first.
"We weren't meeting the basic needs," Vetter said.
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