Kanawha-Charleston, W.Va., Health Department Launches New Alert System

The new system will send out automated calls or texts to restaurants, schools, hospitals and other facilities within minutes of an incident.

by Josephine Mendez, McClatchy News Service / July 1, 2014

Testing for a food safety alert system that will activate during natural or man-made disasters will begin today.

The new system, implemented by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department in West Virginia, will send out automated calls or texts to restaurants, schools, hospitals and other facilities within minutes of an incident.

The need for a fast and simple way for the health department to contact these facilities arose during the Freedom Industries chemical spill and resulting water crisis in January. Emergency officials had to personally call hundreds of businesses to inform them of the emergency.

It is being spearheaded by Nasandra Wright, environmental health director, and is part of the health department’s initiative for continuous quality improvement.

“This was an opportunity for us to analyze what we have been through and how we could improve our responses should something like this happen again,” Wright said.

Permitted food facilities included restaurants, bars, grocery stores, temporary food stands and more. Although the health department has plans to include all permitted facilities in the alert system, currently, only facilities that serve food will be included in the test.

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department oversees about 1,300 permitted facilities, the most for any single health department in the state. In Charleston alone there are close to 400 permitted facilities.

“We took this as an opportunity to make ourselves better prepared to respond to emergencies we face,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, health department director. “Obviously this incident was unique in a lot of manners but it helped us realize that we have to get a hold of our permitted facilities simultaneously.”

The automated alert will notify facilities in the case of a water line break, an environmental disaster, an earthquake, a power outages, boil water advisories and will also provide up-to-date information on what the health department is doing to combat such disasters.

“To our knowledge, this system is the first of its kind in the state of West Virginia,” Wright said. “It is also a great vehicle to use to ensure a robust and interoperable platform for rabid distribution of public health information within our jurisdiction.”

On Monday, employees from the health department spent several hours contacting local businesses to verify their contact information for the upcoming test.

“We are embracing technology,” Wright said. “Of course technology is great when it works but can really set us back when it doesn’t.”

©2014 the Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, W.Va.)