Colo. county's emergency alert system abused?

CBS Denver

BRIGHTON, Colo. - An emergency alert phone system in Adams County, Colo., designed to be used for "natural disasters, missing persons, shootings, shelter-in-place, evacuations, fires, road closures..." has instead been used repeatedly over the last year to notify residents of standard community meetings, reports CBS Denver.

The First Call system used by the county's police and fire agencies is typically referred to as a "reverse 911" system that allows authorities to automatically dial thousands of homes in a short period of time to notify them of an imminent threat or public safety matter.

Records obtained by CBS Denver reportedly show that since April 2013, the Adams County Sheriff's Office has activated its emergency alert system 17 times to notify citizens of an upcoming community meeting that would feature an appearance by Sheriff Doug Darr.

Darr refused to speak to the station about his use of the First Call emergency alert 911 system. According to the station, nearly 25,000 calls have been made in the last year to Adams County homes notifying residents of meetings with Darr and Division Chief Mike McIntosh, who is currently running for sheriff.

Vernon Herron, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, told CBS Denver these kinds of phone alert systems "...should be used for when you really need action to be taken by citizens like shelter-in- place, be on the lookout for an escapee or a suspect vehicle."

Herron, who served for 27 years with the Maryland State Police and was the public safety director for Prince Georges County in Maryland, said he had never heard of a law enforcement agency using a reverse 911 system to summon citizens to non- emergency meetings, like in Adams County.

"Once you start to water [the emergency alert system] down with meeting notices it ceases to become what it is intended to be which is a tool to notify citizens of critical incidents and emergencies," said Herron.

"You don't want to water down your reverse 911 system with superfluous information," Herron said.

Resident Nancy Thompson told the station she received a phone alert from the Adams County Sheriff last year notifying her of a meeting that night.

"It was very concerning and made me apprehensive and frightened a bit. What was going on in my neighborhood?," wondered Thompson. "What's happened in my area that it's so vital we get to this meeting tonight?"

Thompson said she went to the meeting but did not hear of anything urgent.

Mike Violette, Executive Director of the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, told the station he had never before heard of an emergency alert system in Colorado being used to motivate people to go to public meetings.

"From our viewpoint it's an inappropriate use of the reverse 911 system. That's not what it was intended to be used for," said Violette.

Mark Techmeyer, spokesman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, said his agency only activates its emergency phone alert system " the case of an emergency," such as a gunman on the loose or a fire.

He said there are many other avenues, like Twitter, to post information about upcoming meetings and other non- emergency events.

Ernie Franssen, Operations Manager for Denver's 911 system said Denver only launches its reverse 911 system for "...a threat to public safety. We want to be good stewards of the tool and we don't want to desensitize or over notify them of things not related to public safety."

Franssen said Denver does not use its emergency alert system to notify citizens of upcoming meetings.

While Sheriff Darr refused to discuss his use of the emergency alert system, Sgt. Paul Gregory, a department spokesperson said, "The decision to use the system was made in an effort to increase attendance... it raised the attendance for those meetings."

Gregory said residents are told about crime trends, sex offenders in the area and crime prevention.

"Because more residents attended those meetings, we believe it had made those neighborhoods safer," said Gregory.

According to CBS Denver, the emergency alert system began being used to notify people of town meetings roughly two months after McIntosh announced he was running for sheriff. Through a spokesman, current sheriff Darr vehemently denied that the alert system was being used to draw a crowd to meetings where Darr and McIntosh would speak for political gain.