Unlike some metro east communities, St. Clair County does not have its own system to send emergency alerts to smartphones or landlines, a fact that prompted one former county employee to say leaders aren't doing enough to keep residents safe.
The county uses a combination of social media and communication with local municipalities to alert citizens of an emergency, St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director Herb Simmons told the Belleville News-Democrat in February.
In late 2011 into early 2012, the county considered purchasing services from CodeRED, an emergency notification company that offers services to government agencies, Simmons said.
Systems like CodeRED can push an emergency alert immediately to a smartphone, landline or email. Alerts can be sent to an entire community, county or a group of specific residents, depending on who is affected. An immediate alert can give residents more time to seek shelter, say, during a tornado warning.
But the proposal to adopt the CodeRED system at the county level never made it to the County Board, Simmons said.
The county "had no interest in funding it," said Randy Lay, the former EMA director for St. Clair County, even as municipalities like Belleville and O'Fallon adopted it.
"How can they afford to do this and we can't?" Lay said in a phone interview with the News-Democrat. "Facebook is not an emergency alerting system. It strikes a cord with me that the county could do a lot more and they don’t."
Simmons said the decision to forgo CodeRED was based on cost, which could have amounted to $50,000 for the first year.
"We didn’t know where that money was going to be coming from," Simmons said.
Simmons replaced Lay at the end of 2012 as EMA director after serving a stint as assistant director under Lay.
Back in 2012, the county considered opening a contract with CodeRED that would have rolled each municipalities' system into one, county-wide system, but it never became a reality.
Lay says having one countywide contract would have saved municipalities money. More communities chipping into one service would have created an "economy of scale," Lay said.
"Each city could send their own messages and have access to the system and pay for that service," Lay said. "It would have helped fund the county system and it would save money. That's truly good government."
With several St. Clair County communities already participating in CodeRED, a future county system would mostly serve unincorporated areas, Simmons said.
Though the county didn't finalize a plan back in 2012, Simmons says implementing a system is not "out of sight, out of mind."
"We're always looking to improve. I think we’re doing the best we can, but it can always be better," Simmons said. "The county has looked at (CodeRED) and we continue to look at it, and I think we can if the powers that be would entertain that."
As for Lay's opinion on social media not serving as an emergency notification system, Simmons said, "It’s another form of it."
More than 23,000 people follow the agency’s Facebook page, where moderators post real-time information about emergencies.