Detroit Lakes is among a growing number of cities using reverse 911 systems to communicate with the public during emergencies. But only about 10 percent of the city's residents have signed up.
The city doesn't have warning sirens. In fact, Minnesota cities are not required to have any emergency warning systems except a federal requirement for communities located within ten miles of a nuclear power plant.
The city council often discussed the need for a way to warn residents of emergency situations but new sirens were just too expensive, costing more than $500,000.
So this year, the city purchased software that will cost $18,000 a year to deliver emergency voice or text messages.
“The advantage of this type of product is that it answers the questions right away. The sirens don't answer any questions.”Police Chief Kelvin Keena
"The advantage of this type of product is that it answers the questions right away," said Police Chief Kelvin Keena, who loves the new technology. "The sirens don't answer any questions. They just alert people and then they flood the law enforcement dispatch center asking, 'Why are the sirens blowing?'"
Residents can sign up for the Instant Alert software providing their phone numbers and email addresses. When there's an emergency, such as a tornado warning, a dispatcher or police officer can send a pre-recorded message to every phone number and email address in the database.
This service is free to residents but they are charged normal rates for emergency text messages the systems sends to their cell phones.
Messages can be sent to everyone in the database, or to different groups. For example, a message can be sent to all firefighters or local hospital employees.
The software also tracks how many messages are delivered. Keena scrolled through the log from a blizzard warning message sent in March.
"Here's one that was undeliverable," Keena said pointing to a name on the screen. "This guy had his cell phone off most likely. But he got it at work, he got it at home and he got it at his work email."
The catch is, people only get messages if they sign up for the service, and very few Detroit Lakes residents are signing up.
"We currently have 870 people enrolled," said Keena. "My goal is everybody -- 8,000."
Why wouldn't residents sign up for a service that might save their lives? As it turns out, the answer might be they don't know about it.
Elizabeth Kapenga is one of several people interviewed who hadn't heard about the emergency alert system.
"I don't know how they've told people about it, but I've certainly not heard anything about it," she said.
Now that she knows about the service, Kapenga definitely plans to sign up. She said it's worrisome to not have a warning siren for severe weather.
"You know, if I don't have my radio or TV on and some severe weather were to come, how would you know unless you saw it out your window? And then it would be too late," she said.
Chief Keena is puzzled by the small number of residents who've signed up. The city hasn't sent a mailing to every house, but Keena said there have been stories in the local newspaper and he's been interviewed several times on local radio and television. "I've got to be honest with you, I'm a little bit at my wits' end," said Keena. "I'm still just flabbergasted by the number of people that never heard of it."
Keena said the technology solves an important public safety problem for Detroit Lakes, but the system can only be successful if a majority of city residents use it. He expects there will be more interest after the first severe weather of the season rolls through the area.
It's not clear how many communities in Minnesota have gone to text and call-based emergency warning systems. Since emergency alert systems aren't required by the state, state agencies don't appear to track their use.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has studied how long it takes to send out weather alerts by phone. According to NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Scientist Rich Jesuroga in Boulder, Colo., several factors affect the efficiency of a reverse 911 system.
"How big of an area you call, what time of day, and how long the message is that you want to leave, all of those things play in to the rate at which you can get warnings out to people," he said.
Researchers found the highest rate of phone messages they could deliver was 1,000 per hour. The slowest rate was 400 per hour during peak phone use times.
Jesuroga said the average advance time on a tornado warning is 14 minutes. He said that means using reverse 911 for severe weather is efficient for small areas, but not if tens of thousands of people need to be notified.