Ada County wants new phone alert service

The private contractor has failed twice this year to deliver emergency messages.

cmsewell@idahostatesman.comMarch 20, 2014 

The calls about evacuations, hazards and other threats hasn't been working as promised in Ada County, and the Sheriff's Office has decided to find another company.

The county has had several technical problems and issues with My State USA, said Ada County Sheriff's spokesperson Andrea Dearden.

This year, two out of three alerts have failed. On Jan. 28, an alert on a missing teenager was sent to landlines in certain West Boise neighborhoods, but the call contained no message - and some recipients complained about the confusing late-night emergency phone call with no message, Dearden said.

On Feb. 6, officers wanted to let residents know they were tracking a mountain lion in Riverside Village in Garden City. But the message couldn't be sent in time because of technical difficulties. A February alert was successful at alerting neighbors of a SWAT-team incident in Southwest Boise.

The two failures were not major emergencies, Dearden said, but the county doesn't want to take the risk of an alert failing during a crisis like a wildfire or flood.

"If we are sending out an emergency alert and it is an important situation, we need to get that message out immediately. We cannot afford delays or errors like that," she said. "We need that alert to work the way we expect it to work."

A spokesman for the company declined to answer Statesman questions Tuesday, requesting that the Statesman mail questions to the company's post-office box.

Ada County has been contracting with My State USA since 2012. This year, the county will pay the company an annual fee of $15,510. Dearden said the county wants to find a new provider within the next couple months and once that provider is on board, the county will terminate its My State USA contract.

With more and more households trading landlines for cellphones, Dearden said, the Sheriff's Office wants to be able to alert citizens via mobile phone text alerts and email.

"My State USA will offer that, but they can't deliver as promised on the simplest task of landlines," she said. "With any alert system, our first responders as well as our community needs to have confidence it is going to work the way it is supposed to work. Based on our experience with My State USA, we do not have that confidence."

Since February 2013, Ada County sheriff's dispatchers have attempted to use the system 27 times on behalf of first responders. Five of those attempted calls failed; others were delayed by technical problems. "A success rate of 81.5 percent is not acceptable when dealing with critical situations," Dearden said.

IN THE NEWS

My State USA has been in the news recently because Midvale Rep. Lawerence Denney's wife is a stockholder and former employee of the company. The company has received $340,000 from the state since 2009 through a contract with the Idaho Military Division.

Claudia Bitner founded Idaho Internet Associates in 1999; the company changed its name to My State USA in 2007. On Feb. 27 the company changed its name to AlertSense, according to the Idaho Secretary of State's Office.

Dearden said the county was notified in early February the company had changed its name to AlertSense and that Bitner was no longer with the company. Von Hansen is now the company's president and CEO, Jim Borchers its chief operating officer, Dearden said.

A person who answered the phone at AlertSense said Bitner is "no longer active with the company," but he would not say when or why she left. When asked about the Ada County contract, he said: "It is up to the county."

Bitner could not be reached for comment.

The state's contract with My State USA expires on Jan 31. Idaho Military Division spokesperson Col. Tim Marsano said the agency has not determined if it will renew the contract. He said the state is satisfied with My State USA's service.

CANYON COUNTY SERVICE

Idaho counties and cities can piggyback on the state contract, as Ada and Canyon counties have done. The state purchasing division does not track which local agencies work with the company via the state's contract.

Canyon County contracted with My State USA in October 2011. The county pays $5,800 per year for the service, significantly less than what the county paid a prior vendor.

"Before My State USA, we were with Reverse 911 and paid $45,000 for the first-year start-up and then $11,000 for each year after," said Canyon County spokesman Joe Decker. The county said My State USA/AlertSense has met the county's needs.

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428, Twitter: @CynthiaSewell

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