Singup rate rising for phone weather warnings
FARGO -- In an area home to the city once unofficially crowned as having the toughest weather in the U.S., it's no surprise many residents pay close attention to warnings about severe weather on the horizon.
And, increasingly, they're turning to the latest technology for the heads-up.
In the past two and a half years, the number of residents in Cass County and Minnesota's Clay County registered for the CodeRED alert system's Weather Warning option has more than doubled, from nearly 14,700 in late 2010 to 30,005 as of Wednesday.
Based on U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the signup rate for the automatically issued alerts about severe weather warnings is 14.3 percent in Cass County and 12.9 percent in Clay County.
Overall, the number of CodeRED subscribers jumped from about 57,000 to nearly 72,000 in Cass County and from about 19,000 to roughly 27,500 in Clay County during that same time period, according to Dave Rogness, Cass County's emergency services coordinator.
About 46 percent of each county's residents signed up for the service overall, based on 2012 population estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Tracy Cervi, operations supervisor for Emergency Communications Network, the company that provides CodeRED and the CodeRED Weather Warning option, said officials in Cass and Clay counties have "done a really good job" of advertising the program. The counties' signup rates are among the strongest in the nation, she said.
"That speaks volumes about our residents here and how important they feel those emergency notices are," Rogness said.
The two counties and the cities of Moorhead, Minn., and Fargo -- the latter having claimed the crown of "America's Toughest Weather City" in The Weather Channel's tournament in 2011, before losing the title in a rematch this year -- periodically issue reminders about CodeRED, usually tied to significant weather events, Rogness said.
"I think most of our subscribers sign up in times of flooding activity," he said, noting his office has a secretary who "spends quite a bit of time" during such periods helping people register who don't have access to a computer.
Rogness said CodeRED's general emergency notifications work well for many things, such as calling for sandbagging volunteers to specific neighborhoods during flood fights, which happened April 27 when Fargo's Oakcreek neighborhood needed help.
But it's not as effective for tornado warnings because it takes three to four minutes to identify the alert area and compose the message, "and that's valuable time," he said.
He encourages CodeRED subscribers to sign up for the Weather Warning feature, which automatically targets alerts to residents in geographic warning areas outlined by the National Weather Service just moments after warnings are issued for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods.
Users can choose to receive the alerts by phone call, text message, email or all three.
Since late 2010, the number of CodeRED Weather Warning subscribers has increased from 11,115 to 22,263 in Cass County and from 3,454 to 7,742 in Clay County, according to ECN figures and Forum archives.
An outbreak of tornadoes on June 17, 2010, including an EF4 tornado that devastated part of Wadena, Minn., motivated many Minnesota counties to look more seriously at adopting CodeRED, said Greg Gust, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Grand Forks. Currently, ECN has CodeRED accounts with 45 governmental entities in Minnesota and nine in North Dakota, company officials said.
The Red River Regional Dispatch Center has a five-year CodeRED contract with ECN, now in its third year, with an annual combined cost of $60,750 split between West Fargo, Fargo, Moorhead, Cass County and Clay County, said Byron Sieber, the dispatch center's director.
Sieber said it's important that people with cellphones sign up for CodeRED because while traditional land lines are automatically entered into the CodeRED database, cellphone users must subscribe to receive the alerts. Last year, 76 percent of the nearly 65,000 911 calls received from the dispatch center came from cellphones, he said.
"So we know landlines continue to erode in people's homes, so we are going to continue to encourage people to sign up for CodeRED," he said.
Users of certain cellphones gained another option for quick weather alerts last year, when the nation's wireless industry began rolling out the federal government's Wireless Emergency Alerts system. It uses cellphone towers to broadcast text messages to smartphones in areas affected by potentially dangerous weather that poses the greatest threat to life and property.
"It's kind of like a weather radio for your cellphone," Gust said.
Towers emit WEA messages whenever the weather service issues an extreme weather warning for tornadoes, blizzards, flash floods, ice storms, extreme wind, hurricanes, typhoons, tsunamis or dust storms.
Area residents with WEA-capable phones first started receiving the messages for tornado warnings last summer. They also were used last winter for blizzard warnings, Gust said.
The WEA system has an advantage over CodeRED in that its messages can be received anywhere in the United States, Gust said.
However, not all cellphones can receive WEA messages, and the government advises users not to rely on the system as their sole source of emergency information or as a replacement for other alert systems.
Gust said he believes CodeRED is "a very worthwhile system," and he also noted the benefits of battery-powered weather radios, television and warning sirens.
"It's simply good sense to have redundant ways of receiving these types of warnings," he said.