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City unlocks 'Code' for emergencies

If you're a resident of Woodbury, you probably got a call in January introducing the new CodeRED Emergency Mass Notification system.

The city of Woodbury has partnered with Washington County to launch a telephone notification system to be used for emergency and life safety purposes.

Emergency Services Commander Mike Richardson said the city saw a need to bring back the system after a similar county program was eliminated three years ago due to budget cuts.

When discussions began to reinstate the system, the city figured it would pay $15,000 a year if it were to run CodeRED on its own, Richardson said.

By partnering with the county, it costs the city $3,500 annually to lease the program from the county.

"We saw value in doing a joint effort to bring it forward," he said.

Washington County holds the license to the program, but city emergency crews are responsible for notifying county workers who then send out the alerts.

And since all Washington County cities are now participants of the CodeRED system, if there is an emergency situation on the border between two cities, both cities will know about it.

"If you had an incident on highway 94 and 494, it would notify residents of Oakdale and Woodbury," Richardson said.

The system is meant to inform residents of specific geographical areas when it comes to incidents like chemical or gas leaks, fires, floods, extended utility outage or evacuation notices.

CodeRED identifies affected parties depending on the location of the incident, but in a citywide emergency like a flood or missing child, all residents would get a call, email and/or text message.

All phone numbers associated with Woodbury addresses based on White Page listings are automatically part of the CodeRED system.

The city conducted a test on Jan. 4 where 107,000 phone numbers were called as part of a drill, Richardson said.

Woodbury residents can register as many phone numbers and email addresses as they want for the same household, but they can only have one Woodbury address on the CodeRED system.

"Without the telephone mass notification system, our only other option is to go door to door, which doesn't provide that immediacy," Richardson said.

Although the city has the In-Touch email notification system in place, it's used for a wide variety of announcements and updates that aren't classified as emergent.

The city also uses outdoor sirens, but Richardson said sirens don't really identify the emergency.

"We can blast the sirens and make people aware that something is happening, but they wouldn't know what that something is," he said.

CodeRED allows the county to map out nearby homes and businesses that would need evacuation in case of a hazardous spill, for example, within 300 feet. The city doesn't have to pre-set a quadrant.

"It gives us the ability to isolate a specific geographical area and only make phone calls to that area," Richardson said. "We don't have to blanket the entire city with that information."

Then the system determines how many phone calls it needs to make associated with the incident location.

CodeRED is as fast as the number of phone calls it needs to make, Richardson said. The January test placed 107,000 in about three hours.

But it's rare that many phone numbers will have to be notified at any one time, he added.

So far the city hasn't had to use the CodeRED system for a real emergency. It will not be used for weather warnings but may be used for follow-up information such as evacuations or shelter locations.

"We need to be able to get messages out in a timely fashion when an emergency situation is in place," Richardson said.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.