Local News

New Reverse 911 system increases capabilities

SEBRING - For many years when the Highlands County Sheriff's Office, for example, wanted to notify residents of the need to evacuate their homes, people living in the targeted areas would receive automated phone calls and hear a recorded voice.

But recently with the advent a new reverse 911 system, which allows the sheriff's office to provide information to residents via the phone lines, the call recipients would hear a computerized voice and be asked to press any number button to get a message.

That led some people to call the Highland County Sheriff's Office and question whether the call was a legitimate call from the Sheriff's Office.

As a result, the Highlands County Sheriff's Office is trying to educate people, said Nell Hays, public information officer.

"We're concerned when it causes anyone to think they are not getting a legitimate call from the sheriff's office," she said.

Joshua Cordero, the dispatch training coordinator for the sheriff's office, said they also want the public to know that "there's nothing wrong with the system and that there are no glitches."

The sheriff's office switched to a new system within the last several weeks, he said.

Cordero said the new system is more user friendly and provides access to more telephone lines. With the change, the system can dial more than 200 calls at once, as opposed to the previous capability of about 12 calls at the same time, he said.

The reason for people having to press a number button is so the sheriff's office can track how many people are actually getting the message. Some people will get the message on voice mail but "that doesn't count as a received message, because we don't know they got the message," he said.

Cordero said people shouldn't be concerned that pressing the button is akin to allowing local law enforcement to begin collecting information on people.

"We are not collecting data on people," he said.

A sign that the call is legitimate is that spam-type calls usually ask recipients to press a symbol button, such as the pound button, or a series of numbers, Cordero said.

The Reverse 911 system is used on the average at least monthly, he said. The main uses are for silver alerts, Amber alerts, evacuations, notifications when a sexual predator has moved into someone's neighborhood and when the sheriff's office wants someone to know that a dangerous situation exists near where they live, Cordero said.

Currently, the system is not set up to notify people of those situations on their cell phones, he said.

But the new system does have that capability and in the future it will become available, although no specific date is available, he said.

Cell phone owners will be able register and tie their phones to certain addresses, he said.

When a situation occurred in the area to which the person registered the phone, the cell phone would be called even if the person happens to be in another state, he said.

Until then, Hays said, the sheriff's office encourages people to notify their neighbors without landlines of the message.

The sheriff's office also is looking into whether the initial voice recipients would hear on reverse 911 calls is human, he said.


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