In a quest to find more ways to alert county residents of weather threats in their areas quickly and efficiently, Lawrence County Emergency Management Agency Director Johnny Cantrell began discussions with an EMA mobile app developer about building an app for Lawrence County, a motion that was approved in Friday's County Commission meeting.
In a work session before the Friday meeting, Cantrell and MyEMAapp Communication Strategist Jay Baxter presented details of the EMA app to commissioners, detailing several channels that could be included within the app that expands its functions beyond weather-related communication.
MyEMAapp is a division of OCV, LLC, a mobile app development company that builds customizable apps for emergency management organizations, public health agencies, law enforcement and public safety organizations.
The app would be free to download for citizens countywide, Baxter told the commission.
In using the EMA app along with signaling residents with local sirens, Cantrell said the county is extending its reach to more citizens. Though he stressed the mobile alerts would not replace outdoor sirens, he argued that the app could reach more people and more effectively.
"When we’re looking at sirens—that’s 1930s technology," he said. "They were originally created as outdoor warning systems. They were only around community centers, ballparks, they were only made to let people know, if you’re outside, go inside to a local radio or local TV and find out what’s going on."
Cantrell said sirens are only effective on a clear day, and even then can only be heard about a half-a-mile from its station in any direction.
"So when you throw in 70 to 135-mile-an-hour winds and terrain, it severely limits the effective range of those sirens," he said. "With the sirens we’ve got in the county, we can effectively reach more... 94 percent of people up to 50 years old use a smart phone, and we can reach more people with the app. We probably only effectively reach about 30 percent of the county with the sirens."
Though it's primary function is to alert Apple and Android users who have downloaded the app to severe weather threats moving into their area, the app also includes features specific to each township and municipality within the county.
Baxter told commissioners each mayor would have the ability to alert users who enable push notifications from the specific channel to alerts, community events and announcements through the app.
For an extra cost, the app could also include a channel for the Lawrence County Sheriff's Department, which would allow sheriff's office personnel to send notifications and alerts to users who enable the feature.
The sheriff's app feature would allow citizens to send anonymous tips to the department concerning suspicious activity in their area, Baxter added.
"One of the big things on this app are the push notifications you can send out as an agency, so if you have a missing girl, a missing pet, most wanted, or even reminders about community events... you can give the ability to that local mayor or a specific agency permission to push information through to a specific channel," Baxter said. "It’s your identity. We could make it look 100 different ways and include different features or channels."
Users who download the app also have the power to opt in or out of certain notifications, he added.
The start-up fee for customizing an app with the EMA and municipality features only would cost $8,196 in year one, Baxter said. Annual maintenance and support for the app was projected at $4,946. Adding a channel for the sheriff's office would raise the total price in year one to $11,831 with an annual maintenance and support cost of $6,846 in the following years.
Alabama Representative Proncey Robertson, who was also present at the work session, suggested commissioners apply for a TVA in lieu of tax grant, which would possibly pay for the start-up price of the app.
"I think that might be something we could probably make happen is this first year, startup. (The county) would cover the annual cost after that," he said.
Commissioners and several local mayors who were present for the session agreed the county and each municipality would split the cost of the app based on population for each municipality.
In approving the app, commissioners opted to include the Sheriff's Office Channel and plans to apply for the TVA grant as soon as possible, District 4 Commissioner said in the Friday meeting.
"It's totally free to the general public, and it's like having your own little radio with you at all times. For instance, if (County Engineer Winston Sitton) is out and he sees some trees across the road or some water across the road, he can alert everyone on the app, and the citizens will know where those road closings are automatically on their phone," District 3 Commissioner Kyle Pankey said. "I think it's something that will be advantageous to our citizens, especially from a safety standpoint."
Burch said the app could include other features as well, like providing a user directions to the nearest storm shelter or alerting a user to local school closings.
Baxter told commissioners the app could take about eight weeks to build and customize after approval.