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PLYMOUTH COUNTY

Plymouth sheriff installs new system for mass alerts

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / August 14, 2011

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The Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department has replaced an antiquated reverse-911 emergency calling system with a new Web-based program that can call the homes and cellphones of hundreds of thousands of Plymouth and Bristol county residents within minutes when disaster strikes.

The so-called CodeRED high-speed public notification system licensed by the Emergency Communications Network will deliver immediate, critical messages to targeted areas, or the entire region. Those messages could include anything from boil water orders and coastal flooding alerts, to mosquito warnings, notices about traffic delays, alerts about missing children and elders, and notification of problems at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant.

More than 500,000 test calls were sent to residents in both counties last week in an effort to flag unused phone numbers. Anyone who didn’t receive a call is urged to log on to the sheriff’s department website to provide contact information.

Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph D. McDonald Jr. said widespread public awareness during emergencies is the goal and the cellphone component enhances the effort to get there.

“Even as our society grows more mobile, residents in the CodeRED database stay connected to what is happening in their neighborhood in real time,’’ McDonald said.

But such a system is only as good as the telephone number database supporting it, he said: “If your phone number is not in the database, you will not be called.’’

Before moving forward with CodeRED, Bristol County had teamed up with Plymouth County after installing a pricey notification system in 2008 it never implemented due to budget cuts. It later removed the $150,000-plus system, purchased with Homeland Security Funds, and had it installed in Plymouth County.

Some Plymouth County towns, like Kingston and Duxbury, have opted out because they have their own systems in place, said Sara Lavoie, a spokeswoman for McDonald. Seekonk, Attleboro, and Acushnet have done the same in Bristol County, for the same reason, officials said.

The old system, powered by a program called The Communicator, was used 259 times in the past seven years, rising from two incidents in 2004 to 80 in 2010, according to records.

One of its downsides, according to Lavoie, was its expense. It cost $125,000 annually, including cost overruns, she said.

CodeRED’s $100,000 price tag has been included in the most recent state budget by Senate President Therese Murray, who lives in Plymouth and said ensuring that the sheriff’s department received funding to continue the alert system was one of her priorities.

The old notification system had its successes. In Hanover in May 2009, a middle-school student on early release from school found a man inside his home. The suspect shoved the 15-year-old and fled, but a friend got the vehicle’s license plate number and called police. Hanover Police Chief Walter Sweeney called the sheriff’s department and dictated a message to residents in the Broadway, Center, and Myrtle streets area. Later, a resident spotted the man on her street, and police made the arrest.

In its new form, for example, CodeRED can also isolate a home where a hostage situation is taking place. Then, every other home and cellphone of residents in the area could get a call to evacuate, or to keep alert, except the one with the hostage, Lavoie said.

Under the agreement with the Emergency Communications Network, the county is not charged for emergency calls and has a bank of 500,000 minutes a year available for all other calls, she said. “We really want to use the system right.’’

CodeRED is designed for people on the move, or those at school, at work, in cars driving from one place to another, or who may not have access to TV news outlets or the Internet, according to Lavoie.

“With this, wherever you are, you can know what’s going on,’’ she said.

Like in Wareham in October 2008, when some residents had to be moved out of range of an overturned gasoline truck, and in Rockland the next year during a telephone scam. Or in the waterfront communities from Scituate to Somerset last year that were on alert for dangerous flood waters, officials said.

The new system could also be useful for routine calls from the state Department of Public Health, or notifications in matters as simple as a delayed school bus. But it could really come in handy in the event of a prison breakout, said Lavoie.

While reputed mobster James “Whitey’’ Bulger is currently the Plymouth County House of Correction’s most famous visitor, an earlier notorious resident was former Liberian president and reputed warlord Charles Taylor, who with four other inmates staged a dramatic escape in 1985 on the cusp of his political rise, and before any sort of alert system was in place.

“In the mid-1980s, I bet reverse-911 was a distant dream,’’ Lavoie said. “Officials dealing with the escape likely relied on a traditional press conference and teletype messages to alert area police.’’

Now, though, CodeRED operators can send out calls around the clock, every day of the year, she said.

To update your contact information, go to www.pcsdma.org. Those without Internet access can call 508-830-6324 weekdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.


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