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Monday, March 31, 2008

Telephone notification system makes emergency response efficient

By Kayla Bunge/The Janesville Gazette

When a vehicle struck a utility pole in the wee hours of a bitter cold January morning leaving people in Delavan Township without heat for more than six hours, Walworth County Emergency Management issued an alert through CodeRED, a high-speed telephone notification system.

The people affected by the power outage learned quickly that shelter was available.

Walworth County has used CodeRED since 2003 to notify people of emergencies, from missing persons to evacuations. The system is not used to notify people of severe weather.

"It gives us a lot of efficiency in our response," said Lt. Kevin Williams, emergency management director.

CodeRED allows the county to deliver important messages directly to home, business and cellular telephone numbers at the rate of up to 60,000 calls an hour to a targeted geographic area.

But the county only can send messages to phone numbers that are associated with a fixed address.

The county currently uses the 911 database, which encompasses every home in the county, but individuals are responsible for registering their business or cellular telephone numbers.

Williams said people with recreational homes in Walworth County can register their out-of-state phone numbers, as long as they link it to their addresses here.

An opt-out feature is available, too, he said. But the county is careful in what it sends out.

"We don't want to needlessly call people and bother them with useless messages," Williams said. "These are things we think are quite important for them to know."

The key to CodeRED's efficacy is its ability to target messages to a specific geographic area.

If a child is missing, for example, officials can send notifications to every home in a one-mile radius of where the child was last seen, Williams said.

CodeRED also provides officials with information about who received the message and who didn't, whether someone actually picked up the phone or if the message was left on an answering machine.

That information, in the case of an evacuation, for example, can help determine where to send emergency personnel, Williams said.

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