Grayson County Office of Emergency Management Director Sarah Somers on Thursday briefed local mayors, fire chiefs, and other senior officials on the county’s CodeRED emergency notification system.

Grayson County Office of Emergency Management Director Sarah Somers on Thursday briefed local mayors, fire chiefs, and other senior officials on the county’s CodeRED emergency notification system.


Somers described the localized emergency alert system by saying, "We can use this for the smallest incident to the big, bad one, but how it works for calling 20 people as opposed to calling the 57,000 numbers in the database is very different."


Somers said that the alerts could be as local as a city block or as wide as the entire county, and could alert citizens of emergencies from a hostage situation to an incoming flood. Grayson residents can register for alerts from the CodeRED system at the county’s website, http://www.co.grayson.tx.us.


Somers opened the seminar with an explanation of the history of the CodeRED program. Somers said County Judge Drue Bynum assisted the GCOEM with consolidating the CodeRED program of every city in the county, which, Somers said, drastically reduced the cost of the program.


Somers said that one budgetary concern of the program had to do with the number of minutes allowed under the county’s plan with the company that provides the CodeRED service. She said the limited number of minutes was one of the reasons she had been forced to turn down requests for CodeRED alerts.


"We do have a plan with a finite bucket of minutes," Somers said, "The question I sometimes get back from mayors and elected officials is, ‘What happens if we use up them up before the end of the year?’ The answer is, we can keep going, but we just get a bill for the overage at an overage rate. The idea being, remember our flood in 2007, there was work going on for multiple days. If we had an event like that again and we used CodeRED — let’s say the first two days, we used all our minutes up, there’s a strong likelihood in a multiple-day event like that that you are going to end up with a federal declaration and some kind of money coming, which makes budget officials not so scared of the overage charge. Plus, it’s an emergency event, and a mayor and a county judge have the authority to spend those monies for the protection of the public."


Throughout the meeting, Somers emphasized that appropriate and infrequent use of the county-wide emergency notification is critical: "We don’t want our residents to ever feel like this is a car alarm going off and start ignoring this. We want them to think it’s really important," the emergency management director said, "It’s a big deal when you make these calls. You become aware of how big of a deal it is when you craft the message, send one out, and you stand in the 9-1-1 call center and listen to the calls from the people who don’t understand what the message was."


Somers said the most important issue for residents’ safety is first responders’ awareness of the CodeRED system and willingness to use it. "If you can’t meet the elements (of using the alert system), it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call us and ask us," she said. "You don’t have to have all of the answers. What an EOC is, is decision support to you. A sharing of responsibility, that’s what happens when we start working together."


Somers said her office was always prepared to handle false alarms, but a late call from an incident commander was more difficult to deal with: "That’s the No. 1 issue with EOCs across this nation, they get called too late."


Somers briefly imagined a phone call from an incident commander to demonstrate for the assembly of officials how the EOC could assist them during an emergency: "You call and say, ‘I don’t think we’re gonna get (evacuation) done with route alerting or with going door-to-door. I think we’re gonna have to use CodeRED.’ (I would say,) ‘Talk to me. What’s the address? What’s the chemical? Here’s the weather. Here’s the wind. What are the protective measures you’re taking? How many people do you want gone? Hey, I’m looking at a better map than you are. There’s a school a mile from there. School is in session. What’s the safe route out? If you’re telling them to shut down, shut your windows, turn off their air conditioner, for how long?’"


Somers also said her office would use this valuable information to assist other emergency management agencies with public relations and official statements. "We’ve gotta try to anticipate every question that a resident’s gonna have when they get that notification as best we can, and put it into a message that can’t be longer than two and a half minutes," Somers said.


She thanked the attendees for their attention and emphasized that local emergency responders’ and politicians’ participation in seminars and workshops like this one are essential for emergency preparedness in the region. A statement from the GCOEM said that its ongoing training seminars are "the result of our after-action reviews of recent CodeRED emergency notifications." She said the "consensus of the attendees (was) to rearrange our planning calendar to allow for additional training and tabletop exercises for senior officials and responders in our community on the valuable tool of CodeRED and how it can best be accessed though the Grayson County EOC."


The GCOEM said it will host a repeat of the seminar for senior officials and command personnel at 9 a.m. on Oct. 24 in the Assembly Room of the Grayson County Courthouse. The seminar is planned to last one hour. On Thursday morning, Somers noted the names of attendees and said that her office would present them with certificates of their participation in the "awareness-level" training.


On Oct. 24, the GCOEM will also hold two "Nuts & Bolts of CodeRED" seminars for dispatch operators and telecommunicators in the Grayson County Courthouse Situation & Policy Room, at 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Another repeat of the seminar for senior officials and command personnel will take place at 5 p.m.