BRIGHTON, Colo. (CBS4)– The Adams County Undersheriff said questions about his department’s questionable use of its reverse 911 system were “silly” and concerns raised by experts were “irrelevant.”
The comments by Undersheriff Roger Englesman came May 15, the day after a CBS4 Investigation revealed that the Adams County Sheriff had activated its First Call emergency alert system 17 times in the last year to notify citizens of upcoming community meetings, a practice some experts termed risky and inappropriate.
The First Call system is what is commonly referred to as a “Reverse 911” system that can be used to alert citizens by phone of impending danger. But in early 2013, the CBS4 Investigation found that the Adams County Sheriff began routinely launching the system to notify residents of upcoming neighborhood meetings.
“It should be used for when you really need action to be taken by citizens like shelter in place, be on the lookout for an escapee or a suspect vehicle,” said Vernon Herron, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.
Herron said he had never heard of a public safety agency using a reverse 911 type system to motivate people to show up for community meetings.
“Once you start to water it down with meeting notices it ceases to become what it is intended to be which is a tool to notify citizens of critical incidents and emergencies,” said Herron, who was with the Maryland State Police for 27 years and was the public safety director for Prince Georges County in Maryland.
Ernie Franssen, Operations Manager for Denver’s 911 system said Denver only launches its reverse 911 system for threats to public safety.
“We want to be good stewards of the tool and we don’t want to desensitize or over-notify them of things not related to public safety,” said Franssen.
The day after the CBS4 Investigation aired, police and fire officials from throughout Adams County met for a previously scheduled meeting and discussed the issues raised in the CBS4 Investigation. CBS4 obtained a recording of the meeting through a Colorado Open Records Act Request.
“Its political season here in Adams County and Adams County politics become a blood sport,” said Englesman.
“The only reason this thing happened is because of politics,” said Englesman who told his colleagues, ‘So we went through three weeks of answering silly questions,’ referring to the questions posed during the CBS4 probe.
But Nancy Thompson, a resident who received one of those emergency alert calls, did not think the issue was silly.
“It was very concerning and made me apprehensive and frightened a bit. What was going on in my neighborhood?” wondered Thompson.
She said she attended the neighborhood meeting only to find there was nothing urgent, just a phalanx of Adams County sheriff commanders and deputies discussing general crime issues and fielding questions.
At the taped meeting, Englesman launched into a tirade against local media.
“When our ‘friends’ in the media particularly the sensationalists that we have here in our very ‘Enquirer type’ media that we have here, the sensationalist we have here in our media and we can name the names of the guys… it’s the Ferrugias and the Maasses and that crowd.’
Bill Malone, the executive director of Adcom echoed Englesman’s thoughts.
“The news will always try to make a story out of something,” said Malone.
Englesman continued , explaining to his fellow fire and police chiefs that his department previously tried to get people to show up to community meetings by leaving notices on citizen’s doors.
“Quite honestly it wasn’t working,” he said, “and we didn’t have the kind of turnout we really wanted, only getting a handful of people.”
Englesman said activating the Adams County First Call system has dramatically increased attendance at neighborhood meetings with about 40 to 70 people now showing up. He said he had not heard any complaints about the department using its reverse 911 system to get people to turn out for meetings.
“We intend to continue doing exactly what we have been doing whether Brian Maass and his friends like it or not is not relevant to us. Whether the City and County of Denver’s emergency management director thinks it’s right or wrong is irrelevant to us,” thundered Englesman.
But some of his colleagues at the meeting disagreed. Brighton Fire Rescue Chief Mark Bodane told the group that he had a non- emergency safety expo event coming up in late May and considered activating the system to notify residents.
“But we came to the conclusion for Brighton Fire that that wouldn’t be a proper use of the system that we have advertised as for emergency notification and follow up for disasters and that’s the way we’ve done it so we wouldn’t use it for that,” said Bodane.
Another chief weighed in saying overusing the emergency alert system was risky, “If it happens too often they hang up. We have to be careful it’s not overused in my opinion.”
Englesman disagreed with his colleagues, “What I’m saying is I think it would be irresponsible to allow the media to determine our business practices.”
An unidentified public safety official at the meeting spoke up saying, “If we take action right now, does it make it look like it’s a judgment we shouldn’t have been using it like that?”
He continued, suggesting the group not do anything right away for fear of having it appear they were reacting to a news investigation.
“But maybe letting this cool down and give this a little time before making a motion might be a good thing,” said the official.
The fire and police chiefs ultimately decided they would consider altering their First Call system and allow citizens to opt in for non-emergency notifications, emergency notifications, or both.
They also discussed altering their individual websites to make it clear that First Call might be used for non-emergency purposes. It’s expected they will vote on potential changes at an upcoming meeting.