Missouri News

Phone-based alert system going over well in Marion County

By Herald-Whig
Posted: May. 5, 2016 10:40 pm Updated: May. 5, 2016 10:55 pm

PALMYRA, Mo. -- A phone-based emergency alert system continues to get positive reviews four years after it started operating in Marion County.

The Code Red system was launched in summer 2012. It provides a way to notify residents of important or potentially dangerous situations in Hannibal, Palmyra and the county's unincorporated areas.

Under the program, all landline telephones can be called automatically with "general notifications" deemed important by emergency officials. Residents with cellphones must sign up for the alerts.

"We can put anything on there about roads closed, bridges out, trees down, roads blocked -- anything such as that," explained John Hark, Marion County's emergency management director.

Hark said alerts can be sent countywide or to a particular area. For example, if an elderly resident with dementia walks away from a nursing home and is considered lost, "we can put out a message to a two-block area, a four-block area, the entire town or the entire county -- wherever we need to," he said.

The system also is a good way for residents to receive alerts about severe weather, such as tornados, flash floods or winter storms. However, all residents -- whether they have landlines or cellphones -- must sign up to receive weather-related alerts, which go only to people who specifically request them.

The weather alerts are prompted by the National Weather Service in St. Louis, which monitors weather conditions around the state. If a potentially dangerous weather event is detected for Marion County, the weather service will contact the county's 911 dispatch center which, in turn, activates the Code Red system.

Hark said the weather-related alerts are directed only to specific parts of the county where the threat poses a danger. For example, if the weather service receives word that a tornado has been confirmed, it will calculate a likely path the tornado will travel. "Then anybody along that path will get the call," Hark said.

One day last week, the weather service reported that a tornado was moving through the northwest tip of Marion County and heading toward Lewis County. A tornado warning was issued for Marion County, but it applied only to the northwest tip. Residents in that area received Code Red alerts, but no one outside that area was notified, Hark said.

Hark said the Code Red system is particularly useful for residents of the county's rural areas who can't hear the outdoor warning sirens that operate in Palmyra and Hannibal.

"We don't have much of a way to warn the folks out in the rural area," he said. "This gives us an opportunity to try to get a warning to them to take cover or try to protect themselves or get prepared."

The Code Red system costs about $22,000 a year. The expense is split by Hannibal, Palmyra and the county according to each jurisdiction's population. Because Hannibal is the largest city in Marion County, it pays the largest share at about $14,000. The county's share is about $5,700, while Palmyra pays about $2,300.

Presiding Commissioner Lyndon Bode said the Marion County Commission is a strong supporter of the system.

"We feel it's important," he said. "It's kind of like insurance. You hope you don't have to use it, but when we need to, it's available."

Bode recalled the time a child went missing in Marion County. An alert was sent over the Code Red system, and the child was soon spotted and returned home.

"It's a way to get the word out fast," he said.

ONLINE SIGN-UP

Marion County residents can sign up for the Code Red system and get more information by going to the county's emergency management website, marioncountymo.com/departments/emergency-management/

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