By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
COEYMANS — The town is considering implementing CodeRED, a mass communication notification system that would send alerts to everyone in the town.
Troy Harper, director of Government Strategy for OnSolve, presented the program to the town council at its June 23 meeting. CodeRED is a tool that enables government agencies to manage their communications, sending out alerts for everything from public safety emergencies to local concert events, depending on what the resident has registered for.
OnSolve launched the mass notification system over 25 years ago and has more than 10,000 client communities in all 50 states and territories in the U.S., Harper said.
“We serve federal, state and local governments of all sizes, whether it’s LA County with 10 million people, down to a small village on the Hudson, where we’ve got quite a few communities across New York that we are serving, of all sizes,” Harper said. “Our goal is to provide a very simple and easy-to-use tool that is fast and efficient for you to communicate with your staff and your citizens, and to engage with them and provide multi-modal information.”
OnSolve is the company that sends out Amber Alerts when children are reported missing.
“The challenge today is that it is a mobile public, so how do you communicate with folks on the road when they are moving about not just inside your town, but outside as well, and you want to inform them at any place, at any time, on any device,” Harper said. “That’s what this is really all about.”
Nearby communities that utilize CodeRed include Saugerties and the village of Coxsackie, among others.
The cost to the town would be roughly $4,000 a year, Town Supervisor George McHugh said.
The company does not sell the contact information and data it collects, Harper assured the town council.
OnSolve would use data it already has in its databanks, such as cellphone, email and landline information, and residents can also register online to receive notifications, and specify what types of alerts they are interested in.
There are two uses that are prohibited on CodeRED.
“There are two things that you can’t do with the system,” Harper said. “You can’t solicit for votes. You can encourage people to vote, but you can’t tell people who to vote for. And you can’t solicit for funds.”
Residents can also opt in to receive alerts in different languages, and the system will automatically translate the message for them.
Town Councilman Brandon Lefevre asked if a person is driving through the town and has the app on their cellphone, would they receive the alert?
“If they have the app and they are in the affected area, they will get the notification,” Harper responded. “They just have to have the app.”
Police Chief Marc Tryon said one of the problems with alert systems is that messages can get lost in the shuffle.
“One of the problems I have seen with these systems over the years is that people don’t pay attention because they all blend into one thing — a very important thing could be mixed in with an unimportant one,” Tryon said. “Can you tailor make the emergency alerts versus just notifications?”
Harper said alerts can be designated as an emergency notification.
The system was first brought to McHugh’s attention by the town’s emergency management director, Bill Bruno, McHugh said. The town supervisor thought it was a good way to reach more residents than can be contacted through Facebook or other social media.
“I know people who do not have Facebook accounts. I know people that do not have computers. That is the way we primarily — and not just us, but how most communities — are primarily communicating messages to their people, whether they be emergencies like a water main break or something police or fire related, or something as generic as an Evening on the Green band concert,” McHugh said. “We are using Facebook — I know people without Facebook accounts and I know people without computers, but I don’t know anybody without a cellphone. All you need is a cellphone and this app.”
CodeRED would also bypass some of the back-and-forth comments that come up on the town’s Facebook page, McHugh said.
“The other thing I like much better than Facebook is that on Facebook, I want to get information out to people. I don’t necessarily want to start a fight on Facebook over a water main break that we happen to share with the village,” McHugh said. “The village has a water main break and they handle it, we share it and all of a sudden there’s a political fight on Facebook about a water main break. We don’t need that. We need to get information out, we need to be transparent, we need to get the information to the people, but I don’t want to be involved in these battles with the Facebook warriors and the keyboard warriors in this town. It’s absolutely ridiculous and we don’t need it. This is very professional and it gets the information out there.”
The town’s Facebook page has implemented limits on who can comment on many of its posts.
Highway Superintendent Daniel Baker asked whether two-way communication would be possible if residents have questions about an incident.
“Sometimes people have questions and they are all good questions, so I try to respond back, maybe with some more detailed information,” Baker said. “With this system, do the users have the ability to [respond]?”
That is possible, Harper said.
“You can use two-way for text and email,” he said. “There is also an add-on feature called ‘Bulletin Board’ where we set up a 1-800 number that citizens can call into, hear a prerecorded message, and then they can leave a message — think of it either as a tip line or a constant update on things that may be changing, to call in and get the latest information.”
McHugh said the department head who issues the alert can also use Facebook if they want.
“If a tree is down and a road is blocked, you just want to get it out there,” McHugh said. “If it’s an emergency alert, you know, more people are going to get that than Facebook.”
Messages can go to either cellphones or landlines. For the latter, a computerized voice would read the message to the recipient, Harper said.
Tryon said he has used the system and it is effective.
“The system has come a long way, even over the past five years,” the police chief said. “It is an extremely powerful tool.”
The town council did not make a decision on whether to implement CodeRED at the June 23 meeting.