On the edge of the Ocala National Forest in Marion County, trees overwhelm Karen Mathison’s five-and-a-half-acre property.
“There’s always a branch that doesn’t want to stay on the tree anymore,” she said of her home, which she shares with her husband.
She said she signed up for Alert Marion, an state-sponsored, countywide emergency notification system that started June 6, because of her home’s proximity to the forest. She needs to know when to get home to prepare for a storm by putting away chairs and other potential damaging projectiles that are on her land, she said.
Marion County, along with Lafayette and Clay counties, have transitioned to the Everbridge-made systems — called Alert Florida — and Alachua County plans to switch to the system this year.
Alert Marion’s launch date corresponded with Tropical Storm Colin, which brought heavy rain and some tornadoes to the county, sparking interest from 1,700 citizens to sign up in the first week, said Sgt. Robert Johnson, the deputy director of emergency management at the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.
Johnson has led the initiative for establishing the Alert Marion system since August 2015.
“The main goal is to get the message out to as many people as possible, and this is the perfect way to do it, at no cost to the citizens of Marion County,” Johnson said.
Bryan Koon, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, is encouraging counties to implement the Alert Florida system. The initiative launched in May 2016.
In 2012, Koon said, about 15 of the 67 counties in Florida did not have any type of system in place for emergency notifications. The state chose Everbridge because it met the criteria of cost, speed and a proven track record, he said.
It is costing the state $12 million over three and a half years and is funded by the division using state and federal funds, Koon said.
Clay County launched its version of Alert Florida in May, despite its contract with its previous system not ending until June 30. As of Monday, 44,365 residents have signed up for Alert Clay, said John Ward, the director of emergency management for Clay County.
Ward said the county will save $43,000 by switching to the state-funded Everbridge system from CodeRED, which it has used for the past eight years. He said that is why the county switched before finishing out its current contract with CodeRED.
It is optional for counties to transition to the Alert Florida system, but Koon thinks the amount of money it will save counties is appealing.
“We think, however, that by doing it at state cost, those counties will be able to save their money and use it elsewhere,” Koon said.
Koon said the Alert Florida system and the individual county system’s notifications will not overlap.
“We don’t want to over-warn people,” he said.
Koon said he wants to use social media and other convenient channels for the county residents. Using new technology is a priority for the division, as the move away from landlines and other methods of communications continue.
Beverly Kelley, who lives in Dunnellon, said she doesn’t have a landline phone. She signed up for Alert Marion the day she saw it on the Marion County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. She tagged her daughter in the post so she could sign up too.
“I wanted the opportunity to get to a safe place,” she said. “It gives me peace of mind to know if something’s coming my way.”
Alachua County plans to continue renewing its contract with CodeRED until June 2017. Jen Horner, the county’s emergency management coordinator, said the county is doing this to allow enough time to smoothly transition to the Everbridge system.
The county plans to make this transition beginning in the fall of 2016, she said. CodeRED currently costs Alachua County approximately $50,000 a year and they have been using it for approximately four years.