A mass notification system which will enable authorities in Lake County to alert people with cell phones of dangerous conditions, primarily but not exclusively weather-related, is ready to implement.

This was one of two topics discussed on Wednesday afternoon when members of the Lake County Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) met via Zoom. They also received an update on COVID-19 from Kathy Hansen, director of Quality, Safety and Emergency Preparedness at Madison Regional Health System.

Committee members first began to discuss the possibility of getting a public alert system at their March meeting, when Madison Police Chief Justin Meyer indicated the benefits. He said the number of rescue operations required in another flood event might be reduced if people could be notified in some way.

In April, a special meeting was held to discuss options after April Denholm, 911 Communications director, compiled information on software packages available. Members voted to implement On-The-Go Alerting and to begin making application with the federal government's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).

On Wednesday, Denholm reported the system was ready to go and asked the committee for guidance, posing a number of questions.

"When do we use it? Who has the ability to issue an alert?" she asked.

She explained that tests needed to be run on a monthly basis, but most people with cell phones would not receive these. However, she suggested the county might want to test the program's capabilities by running an alert with a test of the county's siren system.

"I think that would be a good idea," said Lake County Commissioner Deb Reinicke, who sits on the committee.

To ensure that "Joe Schmoe" didn't call dispatch to demand an alert be sent, members identified individuals with the authority to have an alert issued. Following a discussion, the list included the Emergency Management director, Lake County sheriff, Madison police chief and area fire chiefs. The chair of the Lake County Commission was also suggested.

Committee members explored the types of events that merited an alert. Denholm explained the system could not be used for routine matters, such as road closures, but was designed for severe and extreme situations. In making application with IPAWS, she said she checked all of the possibilities except volcano, tsunami and nuclear reactor.

In Lake County, the primary events which will result in a phone alert are severe weather, flooding and hazmat situations. Other "huge, bad things" might also merit an alert, but specific possibilities were not named.

Regarding COVID, Hansen noted an increase in the number of cases. According to the state Department of Health website, Lake County currently has 12 active cases, with six new cases being reported on Wednesday.

There has been an increase of 157% in the number of positive cases since July 1. As of Wednesday, 54 individuals have tested positive since mid-March when COVID-19 was first reported in the state. At the beginning of July, Lake County had 4 active cases with 21 testing positive overall.

Testing in the county is limited, according to Hansen.

"Here we're not testing asymptomatic people due to the limited supplies," she said.

MRHS is working with area public schools and Dakota State University to develop plans for reopening. She said plans depend upon what is going on in the county as the schools' start dates approach.

MRHS has formed a committee to discuss how to respond later this year when other respiratory ailments become more common. They currently have a COVID task force which stays abreast of changes in policies.

LEPC Chair Kory Reck asked about Madison businesses requiring masks. Madison Mayor Marshall Dennert said the city could not require masks, but local businesses could do so.

"We just strongly recommend that everyone wears a face mask," he said.

Hansen reported that masks were required at MRHS and that screenings were still being done on those who enter the facility. She also reported that there remain some concerns regarding supplies.

"The state has provided some PPE supplies. Our vendor allocates supplies based on purchase history. We don't know what will happen with cases surging elsewhere," Hansen said.

Denholm asked whether dispatch needed to expand their current protocol for identifying possible cases of COVID. Hansen said Jeremiah Schneider, ambulance supervisor, has not expressed any concerns with the current protocol.

The next meeting is scheduled for October.