May 20, 2010

Tampa's new phone alert system replaces Reverse 911

By Jessica Vander Velde, Times Staff Writer

Cellular users can also receive notifications.

TAMPA - Next time there's flooding, a chemical spill or a nearby hostage situation, Tampa dispatchers will be able to notify those affected within minutes.

The new Alert Tampa system, which launches today, will even allow dispatchers to text or call local residents on their unlisted cell phones, as long as residents enter their numbers online in the city's system.

Tampa officials promise they won't release the numbers to marketers or anyone else. They'll use the numbers only to alert people about events such as severe weather, closed roads, boil-water notices and crime patterns, Tampa police communications manager Donovan Maginnis said.

"It's really about getting critical information to people really fast," he said.

Previously, the department relied on the Reverse 911 system and could get out only 23 calls at a time. Tampa's phone list was outdated and didn't include most cell phone numbers, Maginnis said.

He said it's crucial for dispatchers to have cell numbers because many people use their cell phones exclusively.

With Alert Tampa, dispatchers will be able to pull up a map of the city and draw a diagram around the affected area. The people within the perimeter will receive a call that features a pre-recorded message.

"We're not going to create spam with a whole bunch of messages," Maginnis said. "It will only be stuff that they need to know."

The city's emergency management coordinator, Chauncia Willis, said Alert Tampa also will be used internally. For example, if severe weather causes large tree limbs to fall, the city will be able to call all the employees who are certified to work with chain saws, so they can clean up streets quickly.

"This is a huge deal for the city of Tampa because it's going to help the residents and businesses in so many ways," she said.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at or (813) 226-3433.

[iCopyright] 2010 St. Petersburg Times.