MERCER, PA. System expands prison warnings

The new system can alert thousands to a prison emergency within minutes.
MERCER, Pa. -- People living near the state prison in nearby Findley Township are getting a warning system that will alert them in the event of an emergency at the institution.
The prison has a limited telephone warning system now that includes a list of just 22 families living near the minimum-security State Regional Correctional Facility at Mercer.
That will be replaced by a computerized calling system that will likely reach thousands of people within a 1- to 2-mile radius of the prison, located on Pa. Route 258 (Butler Pike), said Fred Ruffo, superintendent's assistant at the facility.
It's not that there have been a large number of escapes from the 25-year-old prison, which houses 1,050 male inmates. It's just that the state Department of Corrections is taking steps to ensure the safety of neighborhoods around all of its prisons.
Previous escapes
The last escape here was in 1994 and involved an inmate who walked away from a work assignment at the prison sewage plant. He was later arrested in Florida, Ruffo said.
Earlier escapes include one in 1990 and two in 1989.
One of the latter involved an inmate who was working in an unsupervised capacity and abducted a female prison employee at knifepoint as she was leaving work, according to Vindicator files. He forced her to drive him to Pittsburgh and took a small amount of money from her before getting out of her car.
The employee wasn't hurt.
Pennsylvania has signed a contract with Community Alert Network Inc. of Albany, N.Y., to provide the service at all of its 27 prison facilities at an annual cost of $1,200 per institution, he said.
Under the old warning system, someone has to sit at a telephone and literally dial each of the 22 homes on the list to put out a warning about an escape or some other emergency, Ruffo said.
Community Alert, a high-speed telephone emergency notification company, will set up and maintain its own calling list.
"Within minutes, they can make thousands of calls," Ruffo said, noting that the prison will provide the company with a variety of pre-recorded messages that can be sent out by phone.
The specific message will depend on the type of emergency, he said.
The new system could be in place within about three months, he said.
Who's involved
Just how big an area it will cover hasn't been finalized.
The program calls homes and businesses within a 1- to 2-mile radius of the prison. The actual distance is determined by whether a prison is in a rural or urban area, and the proximity of neighboring homes and businesses, he said.
The call list could reach into parts of nearby Mercer. The center of town is 1.5 miles from the prison, Ruffo said.
The prison is also supposed to have a warning siren, and one was to be installed last year. However, that installation was delayed as the prison awaited a building construction program that is supposed to replace two housing units and the administration building, Ruffo said.
SCRF Mercer got a waiver from the state to delay the installation, but the building program itself has now been delayed and the prison plans to move ahead with the siren project without it, he said.
The specific sound the siren will make hasn't been determined yet, Ruffo said, noting that prison officials will work with Mercer County authorities to make sure the warning siren doesn't duplicate weather, emergency or fire sirens, he said.
A single prison employee equipped with a designated password can notify Community Alert Network to send out the warning calls.
As soon as the calling is completed, the company will send the prison a fax or e-mail showing the numbers called and the status of each call.
The Community Alert system underwent two-year trials at state prisons in Camp Hill, Pittsburgh and Waynesburg before the Department of Corrections decided to implement it statewide.