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THE SAFETY ZONE | SPOTLIGHT

The Phone Force

Police Are Using Automated Dialing Systems to Issue Warnings Quickly

July 05, 1999|JAMES MEIER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When home invasion robbers struck a quiet Irvine neighborhood this spring, the Police Department immediately turned to new technology in an effort to quickly alert nearby residents about the danger.

Neighbors received automated telephone calls from the Police Department with a recorded message informing them of the incident and urging them to be cautious.

Computerized phone calling systems such as the one used by Irvine are becoming increasingly important crime-fighting tools by law enforcement agencies in Orange County and across the nation. The systems allow police departments to send out crime bulletins to specific areas quickly and without the high costs of deploying officers door to door.

The Anaheim Police Department regularly uses the automated phone caller to warn businesses near Edison International Field when Angels games appear to be letting out just as the workday ends, said Sgt. Kirt Robertson.

Anaheim also sends out telephone messages to neighborhoods in missing-persons cases. Robertson said the system helped locate one missing child within 20 minutes of the automated phone calls being made.

With eight phone lines at its disposal, Anaheim police can send out about 480 messages per hour, he said. Local phone companies provide updated data to police departments of all unlisted numbers every three months, ensuring that most addresses are covered.

Irvine's test run during the home invasion robbery went so well that the Police Department plans to begin using the system to broadcast crime bulletins, neighborhood-watch news and emergency updates beginning this month.

"It's really a fantastic little piece of equipment," said Irvine Police Lt. Pat Rodgers. "It'll save a lot of manpower."

Orange police also use the system, and Laguna Niguel officials are looking into the idea.

Both Irvine and Anaheim use the TeleMinder system, which can cost cities $16,000 to $100,000 depending on their size.

Company officials said the technology was developed a decade ago as a way for hospitals and medical centers to quickly leave messages with patients.

But police and fire departments soon discovered that the ability to target prerecorded messages to specific addresses could make their jobs a lot easier as well, said Jon Halverson, sales manager for the Los Altos-based company.

In the future, company and police officials hope to improve the service so that cities can link their automated phone systems together to handle countywide emergencies.

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