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.
Q: I’ll bet the numbers jump the day you really do have a huge emergency and people realize they need to be plugged in.
A: Perhaps so. But we’re trying to get the word out — an item in our county newspaper the other day yielded a few dozen responses, which was great.
Q: Speaking of emergencies, the New Prague school shooting hoax is reputed to have been a day when some lessons were learned. Local officials spoke of using CodeRED at a debriefing later for civic leaders from across the county, but you haven’t mentioned it.
A: New Prague is one of those oddities because part of it is not in our county and technically not part of our system. But we should be able reach most or all people in town. We didn’t do a CodeRED in that situation; it was terminology the schools used.
A positive that came out of that was getting a conversation going about how to be consistent about this. They had their own system, and another thing that came out was that … the most current information is with the schools; you must register with the school. Some people don’t want to get too many phone calls …
Could we have used the county system? Yes, but the incident was resolved quickly. The Boston Marathon went on for hours [between scares about further incidents elsewhere in the city and follow-up needs]. If New Prague had been a real incident, with hostages, etc., I would have said, “Let’s do CodeRED at least around the school and maybe the entire city.” But it was over relatively quickly.
Q: Another notable moment this past winter was an Amber Alert that came out. A Star Tribune team was with a group of Scott County and Three Rivers parks staff and a pair of citizens and it seemed all their phones were going crazy at the same moment.
A: Yes, and that speaks to the parallel systems that are out there. We didn’t have anything to do with it. It was a commercial mobile alert on smartphones that is geography based: FEMA started it, an “integrated public alert warning system.”
Q: Bottom line, it’s good news that you haven’t had to use CodeRED much.
A: And frankly I don’t anticipate there will be a lot of use: I hope it’s more weather than emergency stuff.
Having said that, we have used it internally for groups like weather spotters, sheriff’s reserves, we could use it for SWAT teams, and cities could be using it for internal groups. Some agencies in other places have used it for overtime shifts for instance: The first two responders get overtime. “Instead of a calling tree, use CodeRED.” And that will grow with time.
My main message to people is, please do sign up if you haven’t. (There’s a link on the county home page, www.co.scott.mn.us, or call 952-445-7750.)