Phone call alerted residents, businesses to bank robbery

Thu, 08/16/2007 - 3:57pm
By: The Citizen

While police and sheriff’s deputies were searching for the man who held up the Southcrest Bank in Fayetteville Wednesday morning, more than 2,200 homes and businesses in the vicinity of the bank were called with a recorded message warning them to use caution and lock their doors, officials said.

The message also contained a description of the gunman, in large part so citizens could notify 911 if he was spotted, said Lt. Beverly Trainor of the Fayetteville Police Department.

The First Call Interactive system can transmit any custom message to about 250 phone numbers at one time, said Capt. Pete Nelms of the Fayette County Department of Fire and Emergency Services. Activating the system is as simple as making a toll-free phone call, which in this case was made from the scene, according to Fayette County acting Public Safety Director Allen McCullough.

“It’s a great tool for us,” Trainor said, noting that once police determined the gunman had left the area, a second “all clear” message was transmitted to the same phones that received the first message. That way residents and businesses could know the area was safe, Trainor said.

The automated system startled some residents who flooded the police department with phone calls because they were confused about whether the message was legitimate, Trainor said.

Using First Call was a quick way to send out the message and warn citizens, some of whom may have had children playing outside at the time, McCullough said.

The system doesn’t work for residents or businesses with unlisted phone numbers, as only published phone numbers can be called, Nelms said. After the system is used, emergency officials get a detailed report via e-mail about each phone number that was contacted and whether the message went through or a busy signal was received, or even if the call went to voicemail, Nelms said.

The system was originally designed to be used to broadcast alerts in case of an emergency involving hazardous materials or other similar events, Nelms said.

First Call can also be used to alert the public about missing children or elderly persons.

In this case it was Fayetteville Police Chief Steve Heaton who made the decision to send the First Call alert, McCullough said. Because county emergency officials were already on the scene helping make sure police working in the heat were taken care of, and on standby should someone be injured, it was easy to activate First Call, McCullough said.

McCullough said fire and emergency officials work well with law enforcement agencies, and particularly with Fayetteville police, he added.

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