County emergency notification system expanded
As flames whipped through the small town of Bangor last summer, Nate Graber was already returning to his home to pack up a second load of valuables when he received an emergency alert about the Wall Fire, which destroyed 41 homes in the area.
“By the time we got the text, we had already seen the fire, because the fire had already started within miles of my home,” he said. “I was already evacuating by the time the alert came through.”
Many others were woken by neighbors and family in the middle of the night. They never saw an official alert.
A similar situation occurred last February, when 180,000 people fled from the city of Oroville and points south in fear of the dam’s emergency spillway collapsing. Phones buzzed with call and text alerts and televisions and radios issued emergency broadcasts.
But the news didn’t reach everyone that way—officers pounded on doors, parents got frantic calls from their adult children and strangers drove around offering rides to those without cars.
While the county has had emergency notifications in place for years, public safety officials are hoping the implementation of a new system, OnSolve’s CodeRED, will help them to reach more people and, in turn, save lives. It was rolled out in phases over the past couple of months in Butte County, Chico and Paradise. Other municipalities have not signed on to the system, but that doesn’t mean residents cannot use the service.
CodeRED allows dispatchers to let community members know when something disastrous is impacting their neighborhood or immediate location. Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien said the city is going to focus on using the system for urgent emergencies only, such as active shooters, fires, flooding, gas leaks, train derailments, missing persons, evacuation orders and evacuation shelter locations.
Citizens have to sign up and create a free profile online, which includes providing a home or business address, phone number(s) or email. People are then able to be contacted via text, email, landline and/or cellphone, as well as social media. Additionally, CodeRED’s smartphone app can send alerts based on the phone’s current location, even if the user is traveling outside the region affected by an emergency.
Reaching people across many platforms with just a few clicks of a mouse is about the most expedient, efficient way to get critical safety information to the community, O’Brien said.
It’s not enough to flash a warning from the screen of a television or through the speakers of a radio anymore, he added. “It’s tough to get information to people across the board, nowadays. We’ve had to adapt to the changing nature of communication.”
OnSolve already has contact information in its database collected from commercial data in its network and the city and county’s old notification system. However, there is no guarantee that a citizen’s information is in there unless he or she signs up.
City staff also benefit from the system—which can generate in-department messages, alerting officers or firefighters all at once. O’Brien recalled the days when a pager was responsible for that job.
OnSolve provides the service for Chico, Paradise and Butte County for $37,500 annually. O’Brien said that the city chips in nearly $6,000 per year. Miranda Bowersox, county spokeswoman, said the county and Paradise pay about the same, with the remainder being grant-funded.
“For what you’re getting, it’s a pittance, as far as value,” O’Brien said. “Really you want to be prepared. You can’t wait for disasters. You want to have these things in place.”
A test run in Chico in December reached about 100,000 points of contact—email, text, phone call or otherwise. And, the systems are connected, so if any police or sheriff dispatch center is disabled, the others can send out emergency notifications in their place.
Cindi Dunsmoor, county emergency services officer, said the goal of these systems is to focus on the safety of residents, who should make sure they are signed up. The program even has a feature that allows people to designate a point of contact, such as a trusted relative, who will also be notified if disaster strikes.
“Mother Nature sometimes throws curve balls at us,” Dunsmoor said, “and we do the best we can to keep people safe.”