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Emergency siren

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

At 11 a.m. Wednesday, Yellowstone County will conduct a test of its new emergency warning system.

Yellowstone County will send phone or text messages to residents throughout the county. Publicly listed landline phone numbers have already been loaded into the system and should receive a test call Wednesday, according to County Disaster and Emergency Services Director K.C. Williams. People who want to receive calls, texts or email alerts on their unlisted numbers or cell phones can sign up at the county DES web page

Yellowstone County is joining more than 10,000 agencies across the United States and Canada that have been using CodeRED for several years, Williams said.

A Gazette news story about the CodeRED debut published last week generated hundreds of county Facebook comments, most of them from people upset that the county's emergency sirens are being retired, a decision that Williams said the county commission hasn't made.

There also has been confusion about how the new system works. Williams and Commissioner Denis Pitman clarified the CodeRED set up, telling The Gazette:

  • You don't need a smart phone or even a cell phone to receive emergency alerts.
  • There is no charge for people who register for emergency alerts.
  • Those who sign up for the app, will be asked if they want additional weather alerts for 99 cents per year, but you may decline that extra service and still get the emergency alerts on the app at no charge.
  • To sign up for CodeRED, search for "Yellowstone County Disaster Emergency Services" online and follow the instructions. Anyone who has trouble signing up for cell phone or text alerts should call Yellowstone County DES at 256-2775 or call Pitman at 256-2701 for help. 

The entire Code Red system will cost $25,000 per year with the expense split between the county and the city of Billings. Billings will pay most of the cost because it plans to used the system for additional public information, such as notifying neighborhood residents when to expect snow plows or alerting people to a water main break.

Adding CodeRED greatly expands the reach of the county's emergency warning system, but it doesn't take away any other component. Along with the phone and text notifications, emergency alerts will still go out to television, radio, newspapers and social media.

However, the County Commission has been discussing the future of the countywide sirens. These 24 warning sirens are tested regularly and are scheduled to be tested again about 6 p.m., Wednesday. But, they have rarely been used over the years. 

There are good reasons to retire the sirens. The technology dates to the 1950s and was designed to warn people outdoors to go indoors and seek more information about the warning. The sirens can be heard by less than 10% of the county population and cover less than 1% of its land.

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By contast, CodeRED has the capacity to reach 98% of the population — indoors and outdoors. Today most people have their phones with them wherever they are. It makes sense to add the phone emergency notifications to our public safety system.

Commissioners certainly would be justified in moving away from the outdated sirens that are breaking down with no replacement parts available. The cost of replacing just one of 24 sirens would be three times what the entire CodeRED system will cost annually.

As Williams said: "CodeRED is an additional public information tool so we can keep public informed of critical and safety information. It hasn't taken anything over. It's just an additional tool."

"It is absolutely 100 percent free. We don't track any of your information to send out advertising."

We join the county emergency services director in encouraging residents to register their phones as soon as possible to receive CodeRED alerts.

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