County implementing ‘Code Red’ emergency alert system

Henrico County is implementing a new multi-faceted alert system that will warn residents of emergencies faster than its current system while saving the county about $50,000 a year.

The “Code Red” system, operated by a private company, will be able to send warning messages by phone, text and e-mail countywide or to specific groups of residents in certain geographic areas as warranted, Fire Chief Anthony McDowell told the Board of Supervisors during a work session Nov. 27.

The system will cost Henrico about $53,000 annually – about half of the $102,000 the county had been paying to maintain its existing system each year. Henrico officials have been operating the current system internally since 2007, using county data servers, phone lines and employee time to send phone, text and e-mail alerts as weather and public safety events necessitated, McDowell said.

But the system was becoming costly and inefficient. It had just about outgrown its four servers, which would have necessitated the purchase of new servers at a cost of about $30,000, he said. And reverse 911 calls could take hours to send out to all 132,000 land lines in the county because only 23 lines were available for use (down from 46 originally).

By contracting with Emergency Communications Network, LLC, those problems will be eliminated, McDowell said. The company will host all information on its servers in Florida, with three backup systems in place in other states. Phone calls and text and e-mail alerts will be sent out immediately through dedicated channels, ensuring that the county’s messages won’t have to wait in a queue behind those from other participating jurisdictions.

The Code Red system is able to distribute 50,000 30-second phone messages each hour, McDowell said, meaning that it could contact every Henrico landline in about two and-a-half hours.

Phone messages will only be sent in cases of actual emergencies – such as the potential of life-threatening weather events or when a dangerous criminal is believed to be in the area, County Manager Virgil Hazelett told the board.

Text and e-mail alerts – which citizens must register to receive – may cover a broader range of events, including non-emergency information about traffic, for example. Anyone may opt into the system by registering a phone number or e-mail address at http://www.henricoalert.org.

Henrico officials are hopeful that the Code Red system will be able to identify emergency phone calls as coming from “Henrico Emergency” so that recipients are more likely to answer. But even if they don’t answer, the system will leave its entire message on voice mail, or recipients can dial the number back to hear the message, McDowell said.

The Code Red system uses a database of phone numbers filtered through Verizon’s list of all landlines in the county, so that it will know to call only one number at a business or residence, for example. The system does not include phone numbers established through online providers such as Vonage, but citizens also will be able to opt their phone numbers into the system if they choose.

Code Red also offers a smartphone app for a one-time fee of $5.99 that will provide emergency alerts from any of its participating jurisdictions nationwide, so that a person who travels to another state, for example, could be alerted to emergencies there.

Twenty-five other Virginia localities already use the Code Red system, McDowell said. In Henrico, it will be administered through the Division of Fire and Office of Emergency Management, though other county officials may have the ability to distribute messages.
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