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Emergency siren

This file photo shows one of the sirens in a network of emergency sirens in Yellowstone County.

The uproar was swift and unexpected. 

Scores of county residents complained to Yellowstone County officials last week after learning the county's new emergency notification system would rely on cellphone technology and do away with the county's Cold War-era tower sirens. 

"I don't want an app, I want a dang siren," said Billings resident Annette Hoffman. 

She called the county's plan "asinine."

Denis Pitman, one of the three Yellowstone County commissioners, worked all week to quell the fears of residents worried the new system will leave them in the dark. 

First, he explained, you don't have to have a smartphone to receive notifications. 

"If your phone number's in the phone book, it gets dumped into the system," he said. 

So when a warning goes out, those who have a listed landline will get the same notifications as those who have signed up for the CodeRED emergency notification app. Warnings will also be broadcast on local radio and TV. 

To sign up or to make sure a phone number has been included in the database, residents may go to www.co.yellowstone.mt.gov/des or call Disaster and Emergency Services at 256-2775.

The county, along with the city of Billings, adopted the CodeRED system as a way to better tailor the messages they send out. The city will use a low priority setting to notify residents when their neighborhoods will get plowed during the winter and what streets to avoid if there's a wreck. 

The app is free, Pitman said. However there is a version that carries a subscription fee, which includes weather updates. Residents don't have to sign up for the paid version and will still get all the emergency notifications.  

"The reality is our system is failing," Pitman said. 

The last major disaster for which the county's sirens were used was the Father's Day Tornado, which barreled through the Heights, destroying a handful of businesses on Main Street and tearing up MetraPark. 

And it didn't work as planned. By the time the county finally got word of the tornado, and then found the person who knew how to activate the system and then flipped the breaker that activated the sirens, the tornado had already made landfall. 

"The sirens sounded after the tornado hit," Pitman said.

Once the sirens did go off, all 24 scattered across the county sounded because they're all connected to the same switch, he said. 

It's an antiquated system that reaches relatively few people and gets more expensive to maintain every year, Pitman said. The parts to repair the sirens are no longer produced, making them harder to find and more costly to acquire. 

The county will be testing them on Wednesday, and Pitman said he's not even sure which ones will actually sound. 

Also at 11 a.m. on Wednesday the county will run its first test of the CodeRED system, meaning county residents will get calls at home if their number is listed and notifications on their cellphones if they've signed up for the app. 

In total, the adoption of the CodeRED system has cost Billings and the county $25,000. Pitman noted that to repair or replace just one of the sirens was many times that amount. 

He also defended CodeRED, noting that any emergency notification system will not be able to reach every resident. The sirens reached about 10 percent of county residents, he said. Code RED, once fully online, has the capacity to reach 98 percent of the county. 

"We're getting something better," Pitman said. 

No more sirens: Now there's an app for Billings, Yellowstone County emergency notifications

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.