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Published September 12 2010

Weather alerts gaining users

In a summer punctuated by thunder and funnel clouds, Mick Pytlik came to question various methods of monitoring the weather.

Depending on the speed and direction of winds, the West Fargo resident can’t always hear sirens in his Eagle Run home. The weather warning app he bought for his iPad and iPod failed him when a thunderstorm knocked out electricity – and his Internet connection.

So when Pytlik found out he could get phone alerts of impending weather danger, he signed up right away.

Thousands of Cass and Clay County residents have subscribed to CodeRED Weather Warning in the days since it became available. Still, officials want more people to take advantage of the automated system of tipping folks off about tornadoes, flash floods and severe thunderstorms. They plan to ratchet up their pitch.

“We hope to get a better response,” said Bryan Green, Clay County emergency management director. “We need more people to sign up.”

Several years ago, local officials acquired the standard Code Red system, which lets them relay urgent messages to residents’ phones. The system came in handy during 2009 flooding, when Moorhead officials used it to summon sandbaggers and announce evacuations.

Area officials decided to add the weather alert feature after some residents this summer complained they didn’t hear middle-of-the-night sirens. Sirens, says Mike Reitan of West Fargo police, are an outdoor alert method.

“With modern construction, it’s nearly impossible to design a system economically and physically that can wake people up in their homes,” Reitan said.

That’s where Code Red comes in: The system places automated phone calls seconds after the National Weather Service releases severe weather alerts. And it narrowly targets residents in the projected path of storms, said David DiGiacomo, the vice president of Florida-based maker Emergency Communication Network.

Once, DiGiacomo bought a weather radio, but with countywide warnings in weather-event-filled Florida summers, it was going off almost every night.

“It was giving me information that didn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “It was like the little boy who cried wolf.”

Hundreds of cities and counties have purchased CodeRED Weather, including Minnesota’s Lake Elmo and Roseau County. West Fargo, Fargo and Cass County are sharing the system’s annual $18,750 cost. Moorhead and Clay County divvy up a $7,000 annual bill.

The weather feature is different from standard Code Red in a couple of ways. It “cuts out the middleman,” as DiGiacomo puts it, automatically sending weather service alerts without human involvement. Also, standard Code Red mines online directories for numbers. The only way to get weather alerts is to sign up.

In Cass County, more than 6,500 people have subscribed in the two weeks since the feature became available. The standard Code Red database there includes more than 57,000 residents.

In Clay County, roughly 2,370 people have signed up since Sept. 1, out of 19,500 in the Code Red database.

“We have a long ways to go,” said Green, the emergency director. “It’s a busy time of year for everybody, but it only takes a few minutes to do it.”

Some residents, such as Gerald Rowell of Moorhead, say they live close enough to a siren that Code Red seems redundant. Jill Schroeder didn’t know it was an option outside Moorhead and on cell phones.

“That would be really handy since I would know what is going on and would be able to prepare for it,” Schroeder said.

Local officials are fielding hundreds of calls from residents about Code Red, on anything from the cost (it’s free) to privacy concerns. (“The company wouldn’t even share those numbers with me,” said Dave Rogness, the Cass County emergency management coordinator.)

Clay County made a call to all residents in the standard Code Red database urging them to sign up for the weather alert feature. Officials are planning another and considering fliers and a local cable TV blurb.

Rogness thinks the feature has made a promising start locally.

“I’m very pleased with that number,” he said of Cass County subscribers. “It’s greater than what I expected in the early days.”

CodeRED Weather Warning allows residents to receive severe weather alerts on their home, work and cell phones. They can also select any or all of three weather events: tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods. They can check a box to receive a verification call once they are cleared into the system. The alerts are free to subscribers.

How to sign up for CodeRED Weather Warning


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529