CodeRED hasn’t been seriously tested yet, but the New Prague school shooting hoax was a warning it might be.
The New Prague school shooting hoax late in March. The Boston Marathon bombings within a month. They were reminders of the importance of instantaneous emergency communications — a system Scott County launched at the beginning of this year. It seemed a timely moment to check back in with Chris Weldon, who oversees CodeRED for the sheriff’s office, and find out how it’s going.
Q: What’s your overall feeling about the system at this point?
A: It’s worked pretty well. We’ve used it a few times: So far, three winter storm warnings and we got them all out in an extremely timely manner, within seconds. I’ve been out for some talks and people have said they received them, so I’m pretty confident it’s working well.
Q: How about for nonemergencies?
A: Prior Lake and Savage police both have used it to notify people of Level 3 sex offenders. They took the address and notified people either within half a mile or a mile of that address, with phone calls, texts, e-mails.
What we found out, if you text and e-mail alone, it’s not reaching nearly as many as I thought. The phone brings us far closer — that really surprised me. I was hoping to use texting and e-mailing more, but it doesn’t get out as broadly that way. Once you do it the first time you think, “This isn’t that bad” and I’m pretty confident they were both OK with how it worked.
Q: How many people are on the system?
A: We have roughly 42,000 land line phones [most automatically linked in through 911] and I’m guessing by now we have over 5,000 people signed up for our optional, opt-in weather alerts. So that means a lot of cellphones have registered with us as well. A lot of people are just taking it for granted their numbers are OK [and so are not taking the trouble to log in and register to be sure] and they might be OK.
Q: Has it been used for any non-public-safety alerts, such as public hearings on topics affecting a certain area?
A: Some cities have talked about that, but some are concerned it may not reach 100 percent and so they don’t want to rely on it [partly for fear of backlash from people demanding to know why they weren’t told].
Q: In fact it’s been reported that in St. Paul, when 8,000 people were supposed to be warned away from drinking water after a break in the main, thousands of people didn’t get the word because they were neither home nor hooked to voice mail. You wonder if that would be less of a problem in a more-affluent suburban area.
A: That may well be. Another problem with voice mail is, a computer can think there’s someone there, starts the message, and is partway through it before the machine starts recording.
But it’s also true that my dad doesn’t have voice mail; older folks often don’t, nor cellphones or e-mail. So it’s not perfect, it’s not 100 percent, that’s why we do ask people to register and put all their proper info into the system or call us and we will.