Reverse 911 systems give public safety and law enforcement agencies a viable option for alerting the public in times of impending danger. Where a neighborhood previously might have heard of an escaped prisoner from a deputy at the front door, citizens and businesses now can be warned quickly and efficiently by phone with some simple technology.

A reverse 911 system allows an agency to pull up a map on a computer, define an area and send off a recorded phone message to each business or residence in that area. These applications vary by jurisdiction, but most use the technology to notify communities of chemical spills, missing persons, dangerous individuals on the loose or a string of crimes.

A missing 3-year-old Florida girl was found after a convenience store clerk, who had been alerted by a reverse 911 call, saw the girl as he was taking out the garbage behind the store. A couple of escaped prisoners in Maine were nabbed after a 3 a.m. reverse 911 call alerted a neighborhood about the escapees. One of the neighbors happened to look outside and saw a couple of individuals who turned out to be the escaped pair. In another case in Arlington, Va., police had run out of leads on a murder so they blanketed a two-mile area with a message soliciting information on the case. A tip came in and led to an arrest.

"It's pretty slick," said Frank Arnoldy, commander of support services for the Crestwood, Mo., Police Department. The department routinely uses reverse 911 to alert the public of criminal activity. The system also is used for less dire situations, such as parking issues. "Our public works department is in the process of a multi-year street reconstruction program and they've given people a timetable for not parking in a certain area. If they're off a notch they can alert them with reverse 911," he said.

The town of about 12,000 also uses it to check on elderly residents. "We call them once a day and they enter a four-digit number that signals they're OK," Arnoldy said. "If they don't respond, they'll send officers or emergency personnel."

A Flurry of Interest

Sigma Corp. started developing its system in 1993 and began placing it in communities about a year later, according to Jim Jones, sales manager of the corporation.

Sigma has placed about 200 of the systems around the country and has seen a flurry of interest recently. "We've probably, in the last 12 months, put in about 50 systems, so it has become a geometric progression," Jones said. "Certainly there's enough people using it now where people are aware of it, and certainly since Sept. 11, we've had a huge increase in the number of inquiries."

Sigma's system is a Windows 2000-based application. Sigma provides all the hardware, training and support. "If someone can operate a mouse and talk into a phone, they can use our system," Jones said.

The cost of a system depends on the number of outgoing phone lines needed to service an area, but begins at around $20,000. Brad Herron, general manager of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department said the Hillsborough system cost between $35,000 and $40,000. "Based on our population and the amount of information we want to get out, we chose 24 outgoing lines," he said. "A one-minute recorded message on our 24-line outgoing system will notify between 700 and 1,000 people an hour." Hillsborough's system is capable of notifying residents by more than just a home phone; pagers, cell phones and faxes also are used to transmit messages.

Cities and counties normally purchase the systems independent of each other but some combine or share systems, which gives them the capacity to alert a large number of people in the case of a catastrophic event.

Sigma begins installation in a jurisdiction by getting a database of names and

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor