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County goes with reverse E911 alert system -- messages go out to public in an emergency

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Just in time for WE Fest, Becker County has implemented a “reverse E911” system to warn about approaching storms and other emergencies.

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Code Red system continually collects and updates local phone numbers, including some cell phone numbers, from a variety of sources, including mortgage, refinancing and credit card applications.When there’s an emergency, dispatchers activate the system and recorded phone messages go out to everybody on the list. About 20 to 25 percent of the public will not get a call because the system doesn’t have their phone number. A custom web location on the Becker County website will be provided to allow residents to sign up for Code Red notification — and to verify that their listed location is correct. If not, they can tweak it, according to Craig Fontaine, who was recently named the county’s emergency management director. That site is not yet available but will be soon, he said.

The county board recently approved the system on a 4-1 vote, and it was not without controversy. Commissioner Ben Grimsley voted against it because it was brought up in contingency planning prior to WE Fest, and is not in this year’s E911 budget, which comes from fees collected on telephone bills. That failure to budget is poor form and bad county policy, Grimsley said.

Others, including commissioners Barry Nelson, Don Skarie and John Okeson, said the urgency of having the system up and running for WE Fest outweighed the negatives. “Communications is one of our greatest challenges,” said Economic Development Coordinator Guy Fischer. “If we save one life, it’s worth the money.”

The annual cost for the program is $14,175. It was able to be implemented almost immediately, because the company already has a base of about 16,000 local phone numbers. It continuously collects, scrubs and updates phone numbers on a large scale and plugs in local phone numbers when it lands a client. Becker county will pay about $6,000 for Code Red services for the remainder of this year. After that the board will decide whether to renew on an annual basis.

There is currently just under $400,000 in the county E911 fund, but the county will need more than $500,000 for an upcoming switch to the statewide Armer radio system. County Administrator Jack Ingstad pushed for the warning system. County officials were concerned about being able to notify people of a weather emergency during WE Fest. “I was surprised Becker County didn’t have reverse E911 capability — the ability of government to notify residents of a real emergency,” he said.

Commissioner Larry Knutson voted for the measure, but wants people to be able to opt out of the system if they so choose. That will be an option, but Fontaine hopes it is not used. “We won’t be using it to track down lost dogs or drunk drivers,” he said. It will be used for true emergency-type situations around the county such as  tornadoes, train derailments and dangerous wildfires, he said. The system is different than the Honeywell system used by the city of Detroit Lakes, the DL school district and some townships in the area. That system requires that people sign up for it and provide their phone number or other contact information. It suffers from a relatively low sign-up rate, for whatever reason, and so doesn’t have the reach that the county system will have, county officials said — although the Honeywell phone numbers will be incorporated into the Code Red system.

Sheriff Kelly Shannon recommended that the county go with the Code Red system, which was the lowest of three bids and is used by 42 other Minnesota counties. “Clay County said it is pain-free to implement, causes no stress on the IT department, and can handle any emergency,” Shannon said.

“If we have a derailment and a chemical spill,” the Code Red system can be used right away to alert residents in the danger zone, said Fontaine. “It’s pretty remarkable.” Fontaine has provided a poster to be distributed at WE Fest and other events that has a bar code that can be scanned with a smart phone. The user can download a free Code Red app that will use the phone’s GPS system to provide free local alerts anywhere in the country. He has also been working with WE Fest employees to educate them about the Code Red system so they can spread the word.

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