If Paul Revere and his fellow patriots set up an emergency alert system today, they’d probably use an app.

Alerts issued by the town of Needham reach only landlines and cell phones that have been preregistered. On the other hand, alerts from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) come through cell phones regardless of any prior registration.

Many in Needham received MEMA alerts on March 1 and March 6 regarding controlled detonations at 135 Pine St. near the Ridge Hill Reservation. That’s where state and local police exploded ordnance fished from the Charles River near Kendrick Street. Alert Needham, the townwide reverse 911 system, did not issue alerts in either case.

“Our system is just to address our local concerns,” said Taleb Abdelrahim, the acting emergency management director who administers Alert Needham. Abdelrahim also coordinates the local Emergency Planning Committee, co-chaired by Timothy McDonald and Thomas Conroy, the town’s health and fire chiefs, respectively

Alert Needham is a critical part of the town’s emergency preparedness. But in comparison to MEMA, “Needham’s system reaches a much smaller group of people,” McDonald said. He explained that Needham’s system is not ideal for all situations. The approval of two department heads is needed to activate the system, and it takes about 20 minutes for the system to generate warnings to everyone on the list.

Fire Chief Conroy said Alert Needham has not been used in the year-and- a-half that he has been on the job. McDonald said that the town used Alert Needham during the COVID-19 pandemic and in 2019, when the state was doing aerial spraying in response to the spread of the West Nile and Triple E viruses. 

“We used the emergency alert to tell people that they needed to be off the playing fields by 6 p.m.,” he said.

McDonald explained that in some communities, the local alert system is used to announce events such as road closures. Needham chooses not to do that, instead making information available through social media. “It’s a calculated choice and you’re always trying to strike a balance,” he said. “If you use it too frequently people will disregard it. If you use it too infrequently, people won’t know what it is and won’t have signed up.”

Even though emergency alerts are still broadcast on television and radio, fire Chief Conroy said cell phones are the most effective tool to reach the most people. Conroy pointed out that fire call boxes have been eliminated, and the siren that used to be on top of the old public safety building is gone. 

In case of a local emergency, Conroy said, “It would go through Rave and social media. We wouldn’t go around with bullhorns.”

The Needham Police Facebook page acknowledged that MEMA’s alerts on March 1 and March 6 were not perfect. “We are aware that some of you around town may not have gotten the MEMA ‘push notification’ that the Massachusetts State Police bomb squad was detonating an ordnance last night,” it read.

Some reported receiving the alert after hearing the first explosion or only moments beforehand. For people who did not receive the emergency alert, police recommend contacting your wireless provider. McDonald pointed out that emergency alerts can also be missed if phones are turned off or out of power. 

The local Emergency Management Committee meets monthly, and Abdelrahim coordinates the agenda. During each meeting, topics of special concern are addressed. In March, the opiate crisis was discussed, and in February, Eversource discussed potential responses to interruptions in the electric supply. 

“I work in the cycle of emergency management. That means mitigation, preparedness, recovery and response,” Abdelrahim said. He prepared for the job by receiving a master’s in emergency management from Massachusetts Maritime Academy. In his previous position, he helped the Public Health Division craft Needham’s response to COVID.

“Needham residents should sign up for Alert Needham,” Abdelrahim said. 

“It’s pretty easy to sign up,” said McDonald. “It would take you all of three minutes.”

To register, visit https://www.needhamma.gov/338/Emergency-Management

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