Many towns opt out of telephone alert system

6 08 2007

NorthJersey.com

In a crisis, Bergen County residents rely on an emergency communications system that can’t call most of their homes.

This weekend’s United Water treatment plant failure made gaps in that system abundantly clear.

Ron and Barbara Stackhouse didn’t know they shouldn’t drink from the tap until 3 p.m. Saturday, when their daughter delivered bottled water to their Teaneck home.

“I said, ‘What’s this for?’ ” Ron Stackhouse said.

Pelopibas Papaphanasio of Cliffside Park learned about the boil water advisory only by reading the newspaper.

But in Bergenfield, Marci Saks got a call at 8 a.m. from a “reverse 911” system.

Only half of Bergen’s 70 towns have opted to join the county’s SwiftReach telephone alert system, which was begun with great fanfare in 2004 and can quickly dial thousands of phone numbers to broadcast an emergency message.

That’s why Saks knew about the water emergency and quickly bought bottled water for her three young children, while the Stackhouses spent half the day using tap water that state officials said should have been boiled.

“It’s at the town’s discretion,” said Bergen County spokesman Brian Hague. “We provide the tools. The local officials choose whether or not to use them.”

The SwiftReach system costs towns nearly $5,000 a year in fees plus 3.5 cents per telephone call. In addition, the county pays $120,000 a year to SwiftReach Networks in Mahwah to use its technology.

Compare that with Passaic County, where every household with a listed phone number is automatically on the call list, and families with unlisted numbers can sign up on the Internet.

The Sheriff’s Department has paid about $100,000 to operate its reverse 911 system since it began five years ago, spokesman Bill Maer said.

And that system doesn’t cost local towns a dime.

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