Nicollet County has a sophisticated computerized warning system that can dial out emergency messages to any phone in the county — alerting residents of everything from an approaching tornado to an ammonia leak to a terrorist attack.

The problem is, they can’t use it. The private company that controls the database of all phone numbers in the county — listed as well as unlisted — isn’t giving the information to the Nicollet County Emergency Management Department.

“If we ever get this going, it’s just going to be a terrific tool,” said Hank Sadler, the county’s emergency management director.

That could happen this spring if the state Legislature passes a bill sponsored by Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, on behalf of Nicollet County. The legislation clarifies that it is legal for 911 data to be used for outgoing calls such as emergency alerts — not just for identifying the source of an in-coming 911 call.

Independent Emergency Services, a Hutchinson-based company formed by seven independent telephone companies, wants that legislative assurance before selling the data to Nicollet County, Morrow said.

Lawmakers have been very supportive of the legislation in early hearings, and Morrow expects the provision to be included in a larger public safety bill still being constructed by a House committee.

“A couple of folks have raised some privacy questions,” Morrow said. “We talked and I explained to them the narrow focus of the bill.”

The legislation makes the data available only to a law enforcement dispatch center, and it can be used only “to notify the public of an emergency.”

Sadler said the warning system can call multiple phones to alert everyone in the county, everyone in a particular city, even everyone in a neighborhood of a particular emergency. The system can also be manipulated so that a new set of people is called for a particular emergency — for instance, everyone downwind from a chemical spill.

“It would have been a good thing when they had that anhydrous (ammonia) leak on the bridge,” Sadler said of the 2005 rollover of a semi on the North Star bridge between Mankato and North Mankato. “We could have evacuated everyone with one phone call.”

A group of people, such as medical professionals, can also be called at once to respond to a crisis such as a disease outbreak. But any of those potential life-saving applications will come only after Morrow gets his bill passed, something he is confident will happen before the legislative session ends sometime in May.

“I think everyone agrees that it should be released,” Morrow said. “We’re just going to clear up the statute to make it clear it’s legal.”

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