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Police alert public to new opt-in notification system 

Similar to schools, users can choose phone, email or text notices

By Jess Wisloski

Observer staff

A new public notification system has been adopted by the Williston Police Department, and notices have recently begun to be issued through the system, according to a release from the department.

At the May 3 meeting of the Selectboard, the town adopted the new policy, and details of the agreement can be found on the town’s website under Public Records and Documents, Select Board Policies. Called VT-Alert, the phone, email and text-notification system is operated by the Vermont Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, and has recently been opened up for municipalities to use for public safety notifications and local measures.

“There’s no actual cost for belonging to the system,” said Police Chief Todd Shepard at the May meeting, in his presentation to the Selectboard. “Montpelier was on the list, Newport just started using this list,” he said.

Until the newest system was adopted at the meeting in May, emergency notifications had to go through a series of administrators and varied communications systems in order to reach the public.

Now community members can directly enroll to receive notices through the new system and the town is encouraging as many community members as possible to sign up at vtalert.gov.

Town Manager Rick McGuire told the Selectboard the creation of the communications policy, inclusive of the new alert system, helped the town move forward with a more cohesive and consistent way to get messages to the community.

“That’s really why we wanted to develop a policy. There was no state requirement that we do this…this is to supplement our other methods of communicating. This isn’t to replace other methods. Right now we use Facebook, we have email notification, Front Porch Forum and other social media,” he said, not all of which are appropriate for fast or immediate message relaying.  “The one that seems to work best to be quite honest is Facebook. When we had [a recent] closing of Marshall Avenue, we seemed to reach 4,000 in quite a short amount of time,” he said.

The VT-Alert system that’s now in effect, which can be found at vtalert.gov, has been operating statewide in various applications including Vermont’s Department of Emergency Management alerts that appear on television and the radio. A similar program has been used by school districts to reach parents about school delays or closures, or emergency drills.

Though enrollment in the advisory system is voluntary and Williston residents would subscribe to receive notifications about a number of different issues based upon their preferences, it can be a first method of alert for severe conditions related to weather, traffic problems and other transportation emergencies.

Enrollees can choose what mechanism they’d prefer to be notified with, and options can include phone calls, text messages, signals sent to a pager or email alerts. Because subscribers register using their home address, the location-based system will selectively issue alerts tailored to the specific area where the registrant resides (although subscribers can also opt-in to notifications about other events in the state if they choose.)

Williston’s town officials may use the VT-Alert to notify subscribers about issues of concern to the town’s public safety, however it won’t be used as a general messaging system. “We want our community to be assured that if a message goes out, it is something of importance,” said Shepard in a release.

Police Chief Todd Shepard invites the public to contact him with any questions regarding the new alert system at todd.shepard@vermont.gov or 764-1152.