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New alert system launches in St. Louis County

Dewey Johnson, emergency management coordinator for St. Louis County, talks about the Northland Alert system during a news conference at the Public Safety Building in Duluth on Wednesday afternoon. The county is partnering with the cities of Duluth, Hermantown, Hibbing and Virginia on the system. Steve Kuchera /

The 1992 benzene spill in Superior is a rare example of an incident that prompted Twin Ports authorities to order a mass evacuation.

But the efforts undertaken to alert the public about that hazard bear little resemblance to how a similar situation would be handled a quarter-century later, said Dewey Johnson, emergency management coordinator for St. Louis County.

"Things have changed since Toxic Tuesday," he said. "The expectation of the public is that it comes to device in your hand."

For the first time, area authorities say they have the ability to reach nearly every person in a fixed area, delivering instant information in the event of an emergency situation.

The Northland Alert system, announced at a news conference Wednesday, can send text messages with emergency details and instructions to every cellphone in a set location. And, unlike previous alert systems, it does not require an opt-in from individual users.

"This is really designed for us to get our message out to the public when we need people to evacuate or shelter in place," Johnson said.

The alerts are handled by St. Louis County's 911 emergency communications center, which first had to receive authorization from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The cities of Duluth, Hermantown, Hibbing and Virginia are also partners in the venture.

Johnson said the system will only be utilized in critical situations, such as extreme weather, flooding or a wildfire, when lives are potentially in danger. The alerts will be sent to cellphones en masse, similar to Amber Alert notifications.

An optional subscription service also exists, allowing users to request additional alerts on weather, road closures, water and gas outages and other incidents that do not require immediate emergency action.

Duluth Deputy Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj, who doubles as an emergency manager, said the city received some criticism for not spreading timely information during the July 2016 storm that caused widespread power outages and wind damage.

Krizaj said the reality is that frequent updates were sent through existing methods such as news releases and social media — but those don't always make it to people in a timely manner.

"We think this system will be a little more friendly to users," he said.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, a mother of two teenagers, said her family will be subscribing for beach condition alerts. She touted the system as an effective way of reaching everyone who lives, works or visits the area.

"We are a regional center; we do have a lot of people coming in and out everyday," she said. "Approaching this from a broader, regional standpoint will provide more effective, coordinated communication."

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