“I look at this as a trial period,” Crawford County Board Supervisor Phil Mueller said of the county’s new emergency alert system, CodeRed.
The new system gives authorities 20,000 minutes per year for voice alerts on the county’s landlines and selected cellphones, with unlimited texts and emails. Every single minute used conveying a voice message to any of the county’s almost 7,000 contacts is deducted from the total allowed.
The county has a three-year contract for the CodeRed emergency service alert system, which went went into effect January 1, 2013.
As of August 1, approximately 60-percent of those minutes had already been used. The only use of the system during the June 21-23 severe thunderstorms with flooding and multiple mudslides were those automated through the National Weather service, an automated service that individuals must sign up for – only 980 have done so as of July 29. There are 6,832 numbers in the database for voice message notification.
“It has gotten more use than we initially expected,” said Crawford County Emergency Management Director Roger Martin. He pointed out there were more snow and storm-related calls than the county had planned upon.
Two incidents have prompted countywide calls, according to Crawford County 911 Dispatch Director Julie Cipra. One was for the temporary closure and reopening of the Prairie du Chien bridge to Lansing Iowa. The other was for the closure and reopening of Highway 35 due to a rock and mudslide during the June storms. A number of localized calls have been made as well, she noted. The Prairie du Chien Police Department requested its use for an emergency snow plowing and no parking on city streets call.
“I think we have had only one or two other voice calls affecting a few residents on a specific street for an emergency water shut off,” Cipra said.
However, the emergency alert system was remarkably silent during an emergency event given the decision to not make use of either county-wide or localized calls to county residents beyond those received by the 14-percent of county residents who signed up for the optional weather alert system.
Making localized calls during an emergency would have been extremely challenging within dispatch, according to Cipra.
“We aren’t getting information as things happen, it can take awhile before we know about it,” Cipra said, adding that call volume is very high at such times.
All available personnel were called in to help dispatch during the June storms. Despite the extra personnel, Cipra said taking the time to make localized calls through the CodeRed system would have been prohibitive. Making countywide calls for many localized events would have been both unnecessary and obtrusive (many calls come in the middle of the night), according to Cipra, and making many localized calls would have been highly time consuming and difficult to institute in a timely manner given the delay in information reaching dispatch from the highway department and sheriff’s department.
“We can’t solve everything for everybody during an event like that,” Cipra said.
“The immediacy of action needed versus the delay for accurate information is an issue in deploying alerts,” Mueller said. He stressed that he saw tailoring alerts to be more specific to the location of events as necessary to the system’s success, using the bridge at Tainter Creek being washed-out on County C during severe storms in June as an example.
“If the people in proximity had been notified, it would have made sense,” Mueller continued. “The whole county – no.”
Road closures were a stated use for CodeRed from the beginning.
“Generally, a road closure is something you have control over,” Martin said. “It’s planned. Emergency closures pose an accuracy problem. During those events you have multiple agencies calling in and cell service can be an issue. By the time we receive the information, it may no longer be accurate.”
Martin, along with Cipra and Crawford County Sheriff Dale McCullick were responsible for much of the research done before choosing an alert system. They provided the information to the public safety and finance committees before it went to the county board for approval.
Deployment of the system is through the Crawford County Dispatch, whose employees are trained in the use of CodeRed.
Other counties and municipalities across the country are using CodeRed for a broad array of alerts. Cobb County, Georgia used the system mid-July to broadcast an alert in a one-mile radius after a police officer was shot in Symrna. Police in Hamburg, New York, used the system to ask 700 businesses for surveillance video of a possible suspect earlier that same month.
“We use it for tornadoes, road closures, water main breaks, and missing persons,” said Onalaska’s Fire Chief Don Dominick.
“It’s pretty dog-gone simple to use,” according to Dominick. “You can either do an all call or you select an area to call using an artist tool to shade in the area of a digital map that you want to call.”
The CodeRed system is designed to be easily accessed, Dominick explained. Using the internet-based service, he can create a field command post when responding to an event and send out reports from the site.
“You dial a phone number, select the area to send to, record your message, verify that you want to send it, and it’s done,” Dominick said. Within a few minutes, he said he can receive a report identifying all the numbers where they did not get a pick-up, so they target them with door-to-door calls.
“We used it last summer during the high heat for a missing person call where an elderly person wandered out of a nursing home,” Dominick said. “We were able to estimate how fast they might walk and target the call within quarter mile increments to get the word out and find them quickly.”
The system was used similarly to locate a kindergartener who got on the wrong bus home after their first day of school last fall.
Dominick is happy with the service, saying it has proven cost effective for his municipality and their use of the system, replacing the need for a siren system to notify people of an emergency. He’s also pleased with the security, saying that CodeRed has created multiple sites across the country to back up all the data, so if a disaster causes the loss of one site, the response data remains available and the service active.
However, transmission of information continues to be an issue for Crawford County.
“Cellphones are the hardest to use, there are so many dead spots within Crawford County,” Martin explained.
“Two-way radio communication is bad at best,” Martin continued. “We have techs working on this. There is interference, but they aren’t sure where it’s coming from.”
The problem is affecting all agencies in the county including, highway, EMS, fire, and law enforcement. The reception problem was exacerbated when the county switched to narrow band radio, according to Martin.
“Experts are saying that four or five more towers would take care of it,” Martin said, noting that towers can cost $250,000 to $350,000 and that he was actively seeking grants to help pay for more towers.
In the meantime, Cipra stressed that getting people to more actively sign-up for cellphone and email notices will help the county serve its residents more effectively.
There are two ways to sign up additional phone numbers or to opt in for the weather alerts:
• visit the Crawford County online at www. http://crawfordcountywi.org and click on the CodeRed and CodeRed Weather Warning link; or
• call 608-326-0267 to leave a message and someone will return your call to assist you with signing up.
“This is another level of information for those more connected with cell phone this is more useful,” Mueller said. “If you don’t (have cellphone access), you have other sources of information you’re accessing like television or radio.”
“Ultimately, I am not sure if this (CodeRed) is useful,” Mueller said. “I see this as an issue of personal responsibility.
“The more we use this, the more we’ll find its weaknesses,” Mueller said.
With two-thirds of the minutes initially allotted for the year already used, Martin said they will be keeping an eye on their use of the system. Additional minutes are sold by CodeRed in blocks of 2,125 minutes for $850.
“If mother nature keeps sending us these sorts of storm events, we will need to go back to the finance committee and ask them for guidance – spend the money for more time or close it down for the rest of the year,” Martin said.