GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 26, 2013

The Mayor's Desk: When the city goes to 'Code Red'

The Mayor's Desk
Carolyn Kirk

---- — Every so often, the issue comes up as to when to use the emergency messaging system we refer to as Code Red.

The last two times we’ve used it, we used it to declare snow emergencies and parking bans. However, when both those snow events didn’t produce forecasted results, we did not use Code Red to lift the parking bans, and we’ve gotten quite a few questions as to why.

Basically, Code Red is an extremely powerful tool. When we launch a Code Red call, it goes to almost 15,000 residents. We have been very disciplined about using it only for times when action on the part of the citizen is required. We do not use it as an information service.

Given its reach, inevitably we are awakening people who may be ill, have sleeping babies, or who have a sleep schedule themselves outside of a traditional schedule. Because we use it for those instances when action is required on the part of the citizen, we never want people to become immune to the Code Red system by overusing it for information-only calls.

For example, we used Code Red this past summer as the threat of mosquito-borne illnesses came closer to Gloucester. We used Code Red to alert the residents about the city imposed ban on all activity on city playing fields, and inform people about the actions that they could take by giving precautions from our public health director.

Another example of when resident action was needed was a few summers ago when there was a severe heat wave impacting the power supply to Gloucester. National Grid asked us if we could enlist citizen help to conserve energy due to the risk of interrupting power supply to the Blackburn Industrial Park, hospital, nursing homes, etc.

We launched a Code Red and asked citizens to conserve energy, and provided a list of very practical things they could do. Within an hour of the Code Red call, National Grid was reporting to us that they could see an immediate and dramatic reduction in energy use based on the actions our residents took.

Some people have made the argument that we should use Code Red to alert people to get a flu shot, or to let them know about the free flu clinics that the city hosts. Given the severity of the flu this year, this was something that we considered. However, the number of doses available compared to our database led me to conclude that we could never meet the potential demand that might be stimulated from a Code Red call.

Residents must rely on traditional information sources and common sense, rather than Code Red. When you get a Code Red call, we are asking you to take action: “move your car;” “boil your water;” “stay off city fields after 5 p.m. and take precaution against mosquitoes;” “conserve power to avert a crisis.”

Heaven forbid we would need to launch a Code Red in the middle of the night for something like an emergency evacuation. There can be no question that when you get that Code Red call, we mean business.

So how will you know the parking ban has been lifted early? The blue lights will go off (yes, we still use those). We will post on the city website. We will inform the Gloucester Daily Times, and hopefully they will push out to their readers. We will let the Chamber of Commerce know, and they will post on their website, and their Facebook page.

Continue to rely on your traditional sources of information.

From the mayor’s desk, the fewer Code Red calls the better.

Carolyn Kirk is mayor of the city of Gloucester.