By Kathy McCormack
CONCORD, NH — New Hampshire is taking the next step in getting out messages to warn communities about a storm, tornado, flooding, and other emergencies.
Gov. John Lynch is expected Wednesday to sign a bill that would create a statewide emergency notification system. Once it's up and running, the system will allow state officials to send residents automated phone messages, either to specific towns and neighborhoods or statewide.
"Nationally, there was Katrina and 9/11, but locally we had the ice storm, we've had fires and we've had floods. We've had people missing," said Rep. Melanie Levesque, D-Brookline, a telecom consultant who sponsored the bill. "In all of these cases if we had had a system ... we could save lives and property."
With the new law, New Hampshire will be joining at least one other state, Connecticut, in setting up a statewide emergency notification system. Connecticut residents started registering on a website last week to receive emergency alerts.
The bill allows New Hampshire to spend up to $600,000 on software and other equipment to set up the service and work off of a 911 database of phone lines. Residents who use cell phones and Internet phone services would can opt in or out of the system.
The state still must seek bids, and Emergency Services Director Bruce Cheney believes the system will be operating sometime this fall.
The bill had faced some concerns from phone service providers, such as whether a large volume of calls would be able to get out at once. A clause was included in the bill saying that no person or corporation who transmits messages to the public in good faith would be found liable for damages if sued.
Cheney said he had wanted the system to require cell users to "opt out" of participating and messages to be sent to cell users based on their proximity to cell towers, but that was rejected in favor of an "opt in" system requiring cell users to sign up to participate.
As a result, some New Hampshire cell users may be notified even when they are on vacation out of state, he said. On the other hand, visitors may not get the message. Landlines will get the message based on location, Cheney said.
"In most cases, this is going to be used on a local level," Levesque said. "It may be used on a county level."
Every community would have access to the service, although more than a dozen have invested in their own systems. For example, New London, Newbury, Sunapee, Springfield, Sutton and Wilmot recently set up the CodeRED system, which has more than 6,800 phone numbers in its database.
"In our case, we will probably continue to keep ours, because we've done a lot of work developing the database and encouraging citizens to sign up using not only their traditional listed numbers, but any other numbers they have, cell phone numbers, e-mail," said Jessie Levine, New London town administrator.
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"We would see the state system as a nice redundancy," Levine said. "It's good to have redundancy in the emergency communications world, but we don't think it would replace the need for us to keep ours."