Wakefield hires emergency calling service

By Coco McCabe, 11/25/2001

WAKEFIELD - No one in Wakefield wants trouble to strike, but if it should, this town of 24,034 people nestled next to Lake Quannapowitt may be better equipped than most.

In a prescient move at a Town Meeting last spring, voters decided to subscribe to an emergency service that is capable of calling every business and home telephone in the event of a community crisis. The calls would give residents almost instant details about the event and advise them on what to do.

''When we started looking into this, who had any idea we'd be in the situation we are now?'' asked Tom Butler, town administrator, alluding to the war on terrorism. No one. But for a $13,000 setup fee plus a $7,000 annual subscription, Wakefield residents have bought themselves a timely measure of

Community Alert Network Inc., the Albany-based company that is providing the service, has recently finished programming all of Wakefield's 11,500 phone numbers into its computerized system. Given the go-ahead, the computer can now send a message from town officials over its 256 phone lines and could complete the townwide notification within 20 to 30 minutes. The town also pays a fee - 25 cents per call after the first 100 calls - each time it activates the system.

''It's something you hope you never have to use, but if you do it's worth its weight in gold,'' said Wakefield Fire Chief David Parr.

The trigger for all of this was an emergency two summers ago when an extra heavy dose of fluoride accidently got added to the town's water supply. It happened on a Friday at the end of the day, and there was no efficient way for town officials to notify everyone affected and ask them not to drink the water.

Media outlets carried the news as an alert on their evening programs, but some residents never found out, said Parr, and town officials took some heat. With this new system, no one should be left in the dark.

''It's another tool in the arsenal to protect people from all types of incidents, including terrorism,'' said Parr.

Community Alert Network Inc. operates in 600 communities throughout the United States and Canada. Wakefield is the only town in Massachusetts to subscribe to the system. That might change.

''We've had an inflow of requests since Sept. 11,'' said Patrick Wren, assistant sales manager for the 20-year-old company.

''We don't claim our system as the one and only system that will contact everyone. CAN is part of a bigger notification picture,'' said Wren, including radio, TV, ham radio operators, and sirens in that scheme. ''But the advantage to our system is at 3 o'clock in the morning people don't have their TVs on. But if the phone rings, they're likely to get up.''

Added Wakefield Police Chief Stephen Doherty, ''This technology allows us to do what everyone wants their public safety officials to do immediately: tell me what's going on and tell me my loved ones are safe.'' The service is also sophisticated enough to respond to localized crises. If there was an oil spill affecting only one neighborhood, then only residents in that part of town might get calls.

It can also help a small police department respond to trouble more efficiently. Doherty recounted the case of an elderly woman with Alzheimer's disease who wandered away from her home last fall. It was cold, she was dressed only in light clothing, and no one could find her. The police launched a search, but they weren't able to find the woman until the next day. Though the story has a happy ending - the woman had covered herself with a pile of leaves to stay warm - Doherty said if his department had been able to send out an alert to residents in that part of town officers might have
found her sooner with neighborhood help.

Was the emergency alert service a hard sell at Town Meeting?

''No,'' said Doherty. ''Especially now. People are absolutely rabid for up-to-date information.''