In Our View: Public Safety Edges Privacy

Agencies must be able to notify residents in cases of emergency

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The task of notifying residents of a possible emergency presents an interesting dilemma for local governmental agencies, one that actually is hampered by technological advancements.And while the issue brings up questions about the effectiveness of agencies during an emergency, it also brings up philosophical questions about privacy in a decidedly nonprivate society.

As chronicled in a recent article by Columbian reporter Paul Suarez, the job of providing warnings for residents has been made more difficult by the diminishing number of traditional phone lines in use.

In one recent example, a small gas leak in Battle Ground led officials to determine that it was prudent to notify citizens of a possible danger. The affected area wasn’t large, certainly not large enough for the kind of large-scale notification that requires delivery of the message through TV and radio broadcasts.

Instead, it led the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency to use a “reverse 911” method in which registered phone numbers in the area are called with a prepared warning message. The problem: Relatively few people these days have land lines, and therefore relatively few could be reached.

People with cellphones, smartphones, or Voice Over Internet Protocol lines can register to be notified. Most of them don’t. According to John Wheeler, emergency management coordinator for CRESA, “Today, there’s no effective way we can reach those people.”

During this communication age, such a dilemma seems unfathomable. When most people are available around the clock, it is positively quaint to think that officials are unable to reach citizens.

At the risk of playing devil’s advocate, that inaccessibility might be a good thing. Goodness knows, some sense of privacy and isolation can be a welcome relief these days.

As author Ayn Rand said decades ago: “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy.” Not that we agree with much of what Ayn Rand said, but this quote seems pertinent in this instance.

Government officials constantly must straddle the line between personal privacy and public good. And while any equating of civilization with privacy has long been scuttled, in the matter of being available for notification about a local emergency, it would seem wise to err on the side of caution.

For a small gas leak in Battle Ground, this proved to be a minor problem. But what if a more extensive emergency arose? What if the emergency proved to be a threat to lives or homes over a widespread area?

CRESA officials say that in the future they will have technology that will catch cellphones traveling through an impacted area and automatically deliver the warning. Sounds like a great idea, although it also raises issues about privacy and questions about how long it will be before that technology is used to deliver advertisements or other unwanted messages.

Those concerns should be raised, but for now we will focus on the issue of notifying residents of a possible emergency. If you wish to register your cellphone to receive warnings pertaining to your area, you can visit http://cresa911.org/be-informed/ and follow the registration process. Information about emergency preparedness can be found at: http://www.cresa911.org/emergency/preparedness.php.

We encourage residents to register their phone numbers in the event of an emergency. Even if you’d rather not be bothered.