A new mass emergency notification system in Washington County connected with seven out of 10 phone numbers during recent testing -- and officials who measured its speed are declaring it fast and effective.
But the push is still on to get residents to register cellphones and secondary numbers, in addition to regular land lines that are automatically registered, said Sheriff's Cmdr. Doug Anschutz, who's in charge of the CodeRED program.
New to Washington County and used in St. Paul and elsewhere, CodeRED enables local government officials to record, send and track messages and alerts to thousands of citizens within minutes, he said.
Residents can get simultaneous messages ranging from community notices of car burglaries in their neighborhood to wider missing-child alerts, weather warnings and should it ever be needed, warnings of terrorist strikes.
On Jan. 4, the Washington County Sheriff's Office tested the new system in two rounds of calls, Anschutz said, as he scanned a website that detailed the test results. The calls went to land lines and registered cellphone users at noon, playing a message recorded by a Washington County dispatcher.
Nearly 1,000 calls per minute
"We attempted to call 103,023 numbers. We reached 64,487 of those numbers in 66 minutes," he said of the first call. "That's pretty incredible, 63 percent connection rate on the first attempt."
Those phone numbers came from two databases of land-line numbers -- a phone directory and the local 911 database. There's no centralized database of cellphone numbers, however, as there are for land lines, Anschutz said.
And that's challenging law enforcement agencies that want to reach out to notify citizens of emergencies.
For those phone numbers that just rang and rang during the first test on Jan. 4 -- typically because people had no voice mail or answering machine -- the Sheriff's Office made a second round of calls later in the day.
CodeRED dialed 38,531 numbers again and connected with 6,597 more numbers, Anschutz said. After the second round, the connection rate climbed from 63 to 69 percent.
Some connections didn't go through, and useless numbers will be purged from the system, he added.
The recordings also piqued public interest.
The 911 center took 800 calls with questions about CodeRED by 6 p.m. that day, he said.
Cell users urged to sign up
Sheriff's officials are urging people to use CodeRED links to register online, especially if they've ditched their land lines for cellphones. The system can send out recorded messages, e-mails and texts.
"The key is, if you have a land-line phone, you are in our system if you live in Washington County," the commander said.
Those who should register, he said, are people who have no land line, or do have one, but also want to register cellphones so they can be contacted at work, cabins or elsewhere about events in their neighborhood.
Statistics indicate that one in four adults in Minnesota and Wisconsin households now use only cellphones.
The system is based on geographic location, and can have several phone numbers registered and linked to one address, Anschutz said.
"You can have multiple numbers for an address, but not multiple addresses for a number," he said.
Joy Powell • 651-925-5038