08/13/08 — Code Red ready for action by Tuesday

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Code Red ready for action by Tuesday

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 13, 2008 1:39 PM

Beginning next Tuesday, Wayne County will have a new high-tech tool to alert residents when bad weather or other emergencies threaten.

Code Red, a reverse 911 emergency alert system, could be triggered in the event of a Silver or Amber Alert, as well.

By the end of the week, the county Web site, www.waynegov.com, will feature a link to the Code Red Web site where residents can sign up additional telephone numbers or choose not to participate in the system.

The system requires no effort on the part of most people -- anyone with a listed telephone number is automatically included.

However, people with unpublished numbers or cell phones will need to log onto the Code Red Web site to add their contact information. On the other hand, if they do not want the calls, they may add their names and numbers to a do-not-call list.

Residents who are interested in receiving the weather alerts through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must sign up, too.

The system will cost the county $37,500 annually.

That, County Manager Lee Smith said, is a bargain, considering the county will not have to buy any equipment or software, hire additional personnel or manage the database -- it is all handled by Code Red.

Adding to the cost benefit is that the system will free up emergency workers from knocking on doors during a crisis, allowing them to devote their full attention to the emergency.

County commissioners have been asking about implementing such a system for the past several years, Smith said.

"This has been a real concern for us," Smith said. "We have been looking at these systems for some years and they have been $200,000 to $300,000. Now, through the N.C. League of Municipalities working with Code Red to develop a package for North Carolina for cities and counties to take advantage of bulk rate purchases, this is very affordable for what we needed.

Code Red is somewhat similar to the Honeywell system operated by the Wayne County Public Schools. That system requires parents to sign up for the alerts.

"This system is much more automated," Smith said. "Say you live on Hare Road and there is a fuel spill somewhere along the road. The fire department or incident commander knows a one-mile area needs to be evacuated. They let central communications know and they could do a drop and drag on a (computer) map and it will look at all of the (telephone) numbers in that area.

"We can designate an area and it will call people just in those designated areas."

He added, "The fire departments need to go deal with the incident. Right now, they are going to have to knock on doors. If they need to they do it, but I had much rather know they are on that incident. I think this is cleaner, smoother and a better use of personnel. Our volunteers have a tough enough time as it is."

The systems the county had looked at in the past would have required hiring someone to manage it.

"Now, once we click and send we are done," Smith said. "They (Code Red) manage and make the calls."

The system also will generate a variety of reports aimed at looking for ways to improve efficiency.

"We will get reports saying there are 'X number' of bad numbers -- these didn't pick up -- so that we can do follow-up reports to see if there any problems," he said. "How they were notified, how many were answered or not and it may show more a need for more public awareness."

Code Red officials conducted a demonstration for the county several months ago. Since then county employees had participated in online sessions and this past Tuesday a training session was held at county offices.

Five county employees, including Smith, will be authorized to activate the system in an emergency. It will administered by the county's communications and emergency services. Since it is Web-based, it can be accessed by computer from any location. That means getting the message out will not be delayed because someone has to drive back to an office to gain access to the system.

Smith said one option would allow the county to send messages in Spanish as well. The county is working to implement that option because of the growing Hispanic population, he said. Yet another option will allow the county to use it in-house to contact county employees only.

The system can also be programmed to contact specific geographic areas, such as low-lying areas, or people who live in mobile homes.

Members of a local civic group questioned Smith about the system Tuesday morning during his presentation to the group. One person asked Smith how people with caller ID on their telephones would know if the incoming call was from the county and not a sales call.

That remains to be worked out, Smith answered.

Smith said the county would work with local phone providers so that incoming calls might be identified as "Wayne County Emergency Notification."