Sometimes a whole lot of people have the same question.
And when everyone asks at the same time, as they do in emergency situations, the confusion builds and adds to the stress all around.
This week the RM of St. Andrews municipality becomes the first in Manitoba to adopt a new software program that can potentially answer a whole lot of questions at once by sending an automated telephone message, email or text to every ratepayer in the RM.
They’ll do it through a software program called Code Red, explains chief administrative officer Sue Sutherland.
They bought it from a U.S. firm of the same name to boost their localized warning systems, and be better able to notify residents in emergency situations such as floods, hazardous spills or tornadoes.
“Code Red is an alerting system that can send a message to many people all at the same time,” Sutherland said, adding it will be an effective way of informing a lot of people at once about sudden events such as a train derailment.
Because it’s tied to a mapping system, it will enable them to strategically call out critical information to specific areas, or to the entire RM as needs require, she said.
“And with it we could send out warnings such as, ‘please prepare to evacuate,’ or give further instruction on whatever the issue may be.”
St. Andrews is a huge RM, with nearly 12,000 residents and encompassing several communities. During emergencies they struggle to provide timely information to everyone, Sutherland said.
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Until now, they’ve only been able to post notices on their website which has limited reach because not everyone uses a computer nor is inclined to check it.
When there is an emergency, as during the flood of 2011 and everyone needed sandbags, it’s difficult to handle all the calls.
“You have many people calling with the same continuous questions,” Sutherland said.
The RM also has less-than-perfect cellular service connections and when paging systems for its emergency responders and their three fire departments don’t work or fail in high-stress situations, the frustration and stress builds, she added.
Yet, even as they now prepare to implement Code Red, they face a problem.
“It’s a matter of convincing people to sign up for it,” Sutherland said.
The RM bought the software convinced it will be a good way for their community to become more responsive in future emergencies. But registering to be included in the database is voluntary, she said.
That’s going to take some time through old ways of communication such as newsletters and the website.
“Part of our problem is due to privacy (regulation),” she said. “MTS won’t release the call list for the RM of St. Andrews so we’re having difficulty telling our residents about this.”
They’re now holding open houses to encourage ratepayers to register, but so far they’ve only reached a fraction of people. Code Red became operational in the RM as of July 1 and presently has about 300 registered to receive its automatic telephone message (or text or email) in a municipality of 11,875 residents.
They’re not discouraged but it’s going to take a while to build the database, Sutherland said, adding that she’s aware of other RMs eyeing Code Red but balking at the work involved to register people.
She added that while they plan to use Code Red for emergency situations only at this time, there certainly is potential to use a communications technology such as this in other ways, such as notifying ratepayers about meetings and other key municipal business.
“We could use it, for instance, for messages like, ‘right now we have a burning ban on’ in the RM,” she said.
The adoption of a fast and effective communications technology such as this may also lead to new ways of engaging citizens in municipal business.
Like virtually every other RM anywhere, St. Andrews doesn’t have ratepayers who pay much attention to day-to-day decision-making. People rarely attend key meetings such as budget-planning meetings, even though they’re advertised.
Yet, invariably, the questions and calls start afterward, said Sutherland.
“There’s not one issue we go through in this municipality that we don’t get questioned about and it’s normally after the fact,” she said.
“And there’s not a day goes by that we hear people saying, ‘I didn’t know about that,’ or, ‘I didn’t hear about that.’”