It was nasty on Jan. 6.
The temperature had been dropping, the snow was falling, and the wind was howling all day long as the Polar Vortex swept into the area.
And at 5:05 p.m., Hamburg residents got their first telephone message during the storm from the town’s Code Red system about a driving advisory. Five more messages followed throughout the course of the blizzard, alerting residents to the driving ban and delivering a timely reminder to clear their furnace exhaust pipes.
“Because the residents were informed, they were able to make educated decisions and knew exactly what was expected,” said town Emergency Manager Sean Crotty.
In the eight months since the Town of Hamburg rolled out its Code Red Emergency Notification system, a series of 33 notifications has been made. That includes more than 250,000 calls, more than 14,000 emails, nearly 14,000 text messages and more than 3,600 alerts via mobile apps, according to Crotty.
The system allows police to deliver an emergency notification to the entire town, or a small targeted section of the town, like it did after a bank robbery last month. Other municipalities, such as Buffalo, Lancaster, Elma, Marilla and Depew, also have the notification system.
A woman held up the First Niagara Bank branch on Lake Shore Road at about 4:09 p.m. Feb. 7. By 4:36 p.m., police had put the word out to residents within a mile and a half of the bank that the robbery had occurred and that authorities were searching on the ground and with helicopters for the suspect.
The benefits of the call were twofold: It quickly told residents why they were seeing police with guns going through their neighborhood, cutting down on nervous calls to Hamburg public safety dispatchers, which allowed dispatchers to concentrate on the situation. It also put neighbors on the lookout and generated some tips that proved helpful.
In all, 858 calls went out – as did 99 emails, 92 text messages and 103 alerts to mobile devices – about the robbery.
The ability to get a message quickly to large numbers of people is key, said Crotty, a public safety dispatcher for the town.
The town used phone numbers from the 911 system and the phone book to develop the list of residents to be called. It has 20,000 landline and cell numbers, but residents with unlisted numbers may not be in the system. Residents can go to the town website at www.townofhamburgny.com to enroll.
Those with smartphones can install the Code Red app and receive the alerts if their phones are within 10 miles of the location of the alert. About 10 people have opted out of being notified, Crotty said.
The system also is used to notify residents of more mundane activities, such as road closures for repaving.
Crotty and four other dispatchers are trained to make the notifications. If Crotty is not at the dispatch center, he can do it remotely from a computer and record the outgoing message over the telephone.
“From the time someone calls me, it takes seven to 10 minutes to get it to homes,” he said.
The system was used at the Erie County Fair last year for seven missing people, including an elderly man. Code Red input the cellphone numbers of vendors, ticket takers, parking attendants and other fair personnel.
“Within four minutes of sending the alert out, we got a call from a person in a barn. He just got this message, and the man is standing right here,” Crotty said.