Local News

February 11, 2013

High tech systems keep area residents informed of severe weather and emergencies

When thunderstorms and tornadoes ripped through northwest Georgia two weeks ago, hundreds of residents of the eastern part of Whitfield County got a severe thunderstorm warning, alerting them they were in the path of the storm.

“The National Weather Service issues those alerts, and they go out automatically through the CodeRed alert system,” said Whitfield County Emergency Management Agency Director Claude Craig. “We’ve had the CodeRed system for two years.”

CodeRed provides two services for the county. First, it allows county officials to issue emergency notifications to residents, such as alerting them to chemical spills and other emergencies. Those alerts can be targeted to specific parts of the county and can be tailored to give residents instructions on how they should react.

“If you have a land line, you are automatically in the system, and you’ll get the call. If you don’t have a land line, you have to opt into the system, give us your cellphone number and let us put it into the system,” Craig said.

The second service CodeRed provides is alerting people to severe weather warnings from the National Weather Service. Residents have to sign up for this service whether they have a land line telephone or a cellphone.

“There is a CodeRed logo on the Whitfield County website (www.whitfieldcountyga.com). You just click on that and answer the questions. It’s self-explanatory,” Craig said.

These telephone-based emergency warning systems are rapidly becoming standard. Many of the counties in northwest Georgia have CodeRed or a similar system. On March 1, Walker County will be the latest to roll out a telephone-based system.

“We can do phone calls, text messages and emails. It’s similar to what the schools are going to,” said Walker County Emergency Management Agency Director David Ashburn. “The one we are using is kind of unique. Let’s say you are from Dalton, but you come to LaFayette. If we send a text message, it will send that message to your cellphone. Anybody that has a cellphone that’s on one of our towers will get that message. You don’t have to sign up.”

The system that Walker County will use will also let residents sign up for severe weather alerts from the National Weather Service.

Murray County uses a system called Nixle, which allows county officials to send mass text messages and email.

“People have to sign up. They go to the Nixle website (www.nixle.com). They choose their location and sign up,” said county Fire Chief Dewayne Bain. “We are looking at reverse 911 or CodeRed-type systems, but we do not have that yet.”

Bain says the county has been looking at CodeRed-type systems for a couple of years.

“We have been meeting with vendors, getting some estimates. We have been trying to find some grants, because right now our budgets are tight,” Bain said. “For a county our size, getting both the alerts and the weather notification, you are looking at $15,000 to $25,000 a year depending on the system. That might not seem like a lot. But when you are dealing with budgets that are already very tight, that can be quite a bit.”

New Murray County Sole Commissioner Brittany Pittman says upgrading the county’s emergency alert system is a high priority for her and she will be actively looking for grants to implement a reverse 911 system.

Northwest Georgia, unlike some other parts of the country, doesn’t rely on sirens to alert the public to severe weather or other emergencies.

“Over the years, we have looked into sirens several times, and the answers always come back the same,” said Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb. “Our terrain is very hilly, and that keeps the sound from going far. They wouldn’t be as effective as they are in places that are flat. Plus, the cost would be very high.”

Dalton Mayor David Pennington says city officials have also looked at sirens and rejected them for the same reasons.

How much would a system of weather sirens cost?

Ashburn says Walker County officials put together a grant proposal for sirens to cover 90 percent of that county at the same time they put together their grant proposal for a telephone emergency alert system.

“That would have cost over $2 million to purchase, plus some $100,000 a year in utilities, maintenance and other costs,” Ashburn said.

He said the telephone alert system cost $26,000 for the set-up and first two years and is expected to cost $10,000 a year after that. Walker County bought the system with Dade County and is splitting those costs.

The cities of Chickamauga and LaFayette do have emergency sirens.

“Those are old sirens that they originally used to call out their volunteer firefighters. They use pagers and other things for that now, and as that technology replaced the sirens they began to use them for other things. But they didn’t have to pay a cent for them,” Ashburn said.

Gordon County has both a CodeRed system and sirens. The county is phasing out its use of sirens, but Calhoun Fire Chief Lenny Nesbitt says officials in that city are looking at assuming responsibility for the sirens inside city limits. The city already pays the electricity costs for those sirens.

“We understand the county’s decision. But we think the sirens may still have some value for us. We have people coming to the city every day from outside this area. They may not get a phone call, but they could hear the siren,” he said.

But other emergency officials say sirens are too limited.

“I personally don’t like sirens. You hear a siren, and then what?” said Bain.

Ashburn agrees.

“Making a noise doesn’t tell you anything. But our alerting system can tell you ‘There’s a tornado in this area. Or ‘We’ve got a lost child in this area. Or ‘We’ve got flooding in this area.’ Or ‘We’re opening a shelter and here’s where it is,’” he said. “And if you’ve got the weather alert, it tells you the same thing you hear on the weather radio.”

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