HAMILTON — Authorities in Ravalli County in western Montana are having a hard time persuading residents to sign up to receive automatic emergency notifications on cellphones due to mistrust of the government.
"I know a lot of people are scared, with emails being hacked and identity theft," said Charlene Stevens, who coordinates the program. "But what I'd tell them is this is a basic thing that could save your life or property."
It's not working.
"Only about 250 out of 40,000 residents have signed up," Dispatch Director Joanna Hamilton told the Ravalli Republic.
Dispatchers say residents have refused to give their cell phone numbers to county officials due to concerns of government intervention or the possibility of receiving marketing calls.
Frustrated county officials say those fears are unfounded.
Officials said there is only one volunteer assigned to enter the numbers into a database, and that the numbers entered into the secure 9-1-1 system stay there and are used for no other purpose than to issue alerts during emergencies.
Hamilton said the system uses an auto-dial program so no one sees the numbers after they're entered.
Authorities say the lack of participation among residents is an increasing problem as more people turn to cellphones rather than landlines. Hamilton said an indicator of the growing cellphone use is that 80 percent of incoming 9-1-1 calls are made from cellphones. Some residents have dropped landline service altogether.
"During our tests of the reverse 9-1-1, probably over half of the calls don't reach people," Hamilton said.
She said county officials learned they had a problem during the 2007 fire season when residents near the Tin Cup fire couldn't be reached.
"We had a couple of bad years trying to notify people of forest fires," Hamilton said. "With the reverse 9-1-1 capability, we can alert people to fires, floods or other disasters, but only if we can reach them."
She said she plans to continue pushing people to sign up for the reverse 9-1-1 calls and give out their cellphone numbers. She said as part of that plan a registration booth will be set up April 30 at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds during Life Safety Days.