New security notification system at state capitol

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - A cloth bag placed conspicuously in a roped-off area in the Washington state Capitol rotunda was the first test for a still-in-development security notification system the state plans to roll out this fall.

Within moments of the Washington state patrol being notified about the suspicious package last month, a 20-word email was sent to 42 designated security people at the Capitol, who then forwarded it on to more employees: "WSP is responding to a suspicious package in the Legislative Building. Bomb squad has been activated. More information to follow."

Over the next two hours, two more emails were sent, one saying the building had been evacuated and another giving the all-clear to return. State officials say it was a successful first run of the system that gave them a sense of what needs to be improved in the coming weeks. Among the areas include adding more people to the notification system, such as the media.

It was used a second time last month, when the alert went out to more than double the number of employees after a phone threat at a state agency.

By October, the notification email is expected to expand to the thousands of employees who work in the 36 buildings on the Capitol campus, creating a streamlined notification system that replaces the prior patchwork of phone calls and emails, state officials said.

With the new system, "we can reach more people quicker than we could before," said Steve Valandra, a spokesman with the Department of Enterprise Services, which oversees the system. "The key will be getting the word out to everyone on campus about the system so that they know an alert that shows up in their email is something to pay attention to."

The cost for the first of the three-year contract with Idaho-based MyStateUSA was $2,500, and the state will pay $2,000 a year for the next two years. While text-messaging is an option, the state said that because of the costs involved with sending texts, it will stick to email notifications at this point.

Washington's among just a few states to have such a system.

"The emergency notification systems are relatively new technology that a handful of states are now implementing in their Capitol buildings," said Morgan Cullen, a policy analyst at National Conference of State Legislatures. Cullen said an email survey he did of states showed that Washington state joins Minnesota, Florida, Texas, Nevada and North Carolina. A notification system also was unveiled in Oregon in August, according to the Oregon State Police.

The Oregon system sends text messages to a limited number of people who work in the state Capitol.

"Those targeted individuals who receive the message are responsible to notify others in the work area," said Lt. Gregg Hastings.

While the main use for the Washington state system will be to contact those on campus about security threats, Valandra said the state is also considering using the system in cases of extreme weather, like the heavy snowstorms Olympia saw this year.

Valandra said that under the system, DES works with the state patrol, which manages law enforcement on the campus, to determine the appropriate wording and timing of an alert. Each alert has a limit of 140 characters.

"The more people we can notify about an event going on, the better chance we have of having them take protective action," said WSP spokesman Bob Calkins.

Valandra said that despite the two uses so far, the rapid notification system won't be in full operation until the first week of October. He said they are still adding more email addresses of campus tenants, developing written protocols and notifying recipients of how the system will work.