Records request shows Smart911 reach

Responders have a variety of tools to alert the public to danger. NBC Montana requested records to find out the types of alerts, the guidelines for when to use each one and how many people are signed up.

Two weeks ago, an armed federal fugitive prompted a lockdown in East Missoula and at a college campus, but not everyone got that alert. Our records request found 540 users were initially notified about the danger while 2,157 people live in East Missoula.

When William "Billy" Dale Newhoff, described as armed and dangerous, started to run, we wanted to know how officials decided which of the emergency alert systems to use to notify people about the danger.

"It was scary, they came through and then they turned and they were going about 80 miles an hour and then I got a phone call saying there's a lockdown in East Missoula," said Michael Crow a resident who witnessed the chase.

He’s talking about the Rave Alert which is delivered through texts, emails and/or voice messages in a geo-targeted area.

The Rave Alert was also used 46 times in August and September in Missoula County. Most of those were wildfire evacuations from Seeley Lake and Lolo.

The records request shows 7,185 households are registered for Smart 911, something you must do to get a Rave Alert if you don’t have a landline. Based on the national average of 2.58 persons per household, the county says that translates to 18,114 people, or 15.85 percent of the county population, registered with Smart911.

With nearly 16 percent getting notified, there are other options responders can use to notify the public.

"There's a couple different levels of alerts that we can do, there's a means alert which is mostly a bad weather or bad roads, that's what we use means alerts for most of the time, rave alerts are kind of that in-between and then there's IPAWS and that's for maybe amber alerts and that's going to hit a lot more people that's going to hit people coming through our area on the interstate," said Sherri Odlin, the 911 manager.

Guidelines that are provided to responders says Means Alerts are widely distributed to media through the scanner and is easy for responders to request. The guidelines say it’s best used for road closures and severe weather. Guidelines recommend using it for “widespread urgent but non-emergent incidents.”

The guidelines have the Rave Alert second. It’s also known as Reverse 911. This was the alert used in East Missoula two weeks ago and is capable of geo-targeting areas to those who have landlines or who have registered their cell phone with Smart911. The guidelines say it’s best used for missing persons, warning residents of suspects in their neighborhoods and evacuations.

IPAWS is the third way. It allows the county to initiate an EAS message as well as force alerts onto cell phones within a geographic area using cell phone towers. Flathead County notified residents of an armed suspect using this method one month ago. The guidelines say it’s best for widespread disasters, warning of possible impending widespread disasters and missing person.

The 911 center is the middle man. They issue the alert but the responding law enforcement officers are the ones who decide which to use.

The wider the reach, the tighter the guidelines.

County officials tell us 55 more people signed up for Smart911 within the two days after the East Missoula lock down. Officials want to stress the importance of signing up before disaster strikes. You can sign up by clicking here.

Each one of the systems has annual costs, we’ll follow up with that information as we sort through the invoices we received in our records request.

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