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Would Oregonians Be Safer With A Single Statewide Emergency Alert System?

A CDC emergency operations center.
A CDC emergency operations center.

The historic wildfires in 2020 left many people frustrated that they didn’t receive local emergency alerts when fires were burning in their own communities. Jenny Demaris is the emergency manager in Lincoln County. JPR’s Erik Neumann spoke with Demaris about her advocacy for an overall statewide emergency notification system.

Erik Neumann: Right now, we primarily use local emergency notification systems. Usually they’re at the county level. You've advocated for a broader, more statewide emergency notification system. How would that work differently than what we have right now?

Jenny Demaris: From my impression as a county emergency manager, it wouldn't work any differently. An emergency notification is just that – regardless of who maintains the ownership of an emergency notification system. The difference would be is that we would have the ability as a state to ensure that every community member in Oregon, including visitors and businesses, no matter where you're standing geographically in the county, that you would have the ability to subscribe to an emergency notification system regardless of where you're at in the state. Right now, the current systems work very effectively, but they are based on a geographical boundary on who purchases a contract for an emergency notification system.

EN: As you probably know there was a lot of criticism that people had this year where they were saying, they didn't get alerts during this year of historic wildfires in Oregon. Would a broader statewide system be better?

JD: Well, I don't feel like I'm the appropriate person to answer that question because the lens that I look at is through my own county emergency management program, and we have a very high opt-in profile. What you find is when you have a larger ability to market to individuals that the service is available, then you can sometimes get more individuals to subscribe.

EN: So this might get past that hurdle of people not being aware that they need to opt-in to this system because it would it would just be one big system right?

JD: Right. It's like think of it as TripCheck. Imagine if every county in the state had their own individual road closure notification system, right? It would be very challenging going from one county to the next to figure out ‘How do I find out if the road ahead of me is going to be closed?’ TripCheck is a fabulous system. No matter where you're at in the state you can do 511, you can look on the website, you can do all these avenues to get to the information that you need regardless of where you're at geographically. Having a statewide system would provide that service but there would still be ownership at the individual level to make sure they do subscribe.

EN: What's needed to make this kind of a statewide system work right now?

JD: Again, that comes back to state objective, state priorities and funding availabilities to the state. It's my understanding that there is a work group that is underway now at the state level, but they are currently working on the evaluation of what that would look like, what it would cost, who would be responsible, how would they procure that and really what would be the best process going forward for all of the local agencies that would be the primary users of that system.

EN: But it sounds like cost is inevitably one of the pieces?

JD: Well, yes. Somebody has to pay for the system. Whether the state itself purchases the system outright and then allows the local users to have access to it, or if they co-op and ask each individual county or city to pay for their portion. Regardless of who pays for it, the taxpayer is the one that eventually pays the cost of an emergency notification system. But again, going back to that co-op philosophy that if you're all using a similar type of system and we're all paying for individual contracts, there should be a cost-benefit to having one statewide program that is either pieced-out or paid for in its entirety by the state.

EN: Jenny Demaris with Lincoln County, thanks so much for talking with me today.

JD: You’re very welcome.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.