The phone calls, said Chief Sarlo, were part of the department’s CodeRED alert. The alert is “an extremely high-speed telephone communication service that can deliver customized pre-recorded emergency messages directly to Suffolk County homes and businesses” in the event of an emergency, according to the Suffolk County website. CodeRED is used specifically in certain areas to alert people to keep an outlook for missing persons, as well as in cases of evacuations, hurricanes, wildfires and severe weather.
“I fielded many of the phone calls myself,” said Chief Sarlo, explaining that he heard complaints from many residents firsthand. “I just tried to address this to the public as a 911 system in reverse.”
The elderly woman, who suffered from dementia, was reported missing at 8 p.m., according to police. The communication service’s first phone call was made at 11:40 p.m., alerting residents within a two-mile radius of her disappearance. The second call was placed just after midnight, notifying people on the same calling list that she had been found. Thanks to CodeRED, a neighbor was prompted to look outside and found the woman in a parked car.
The reason for the three-hour time lapse, said Chief Sarlo, is purely logistical.
“She wonders off at 8 p.m., the husband, after 45 minutes, realizes she’s missing,” he said. “By the time an officer gets to the scene, it’s 9:15, 9:30.
“You wouldn’t want to use this system as a knee-jerk reaction,” Chief Sarlo added.
Ed Schneyer, director of emergency management for Suffolk County, said anyone with a house phone is on the 911 calling list, which is the database CodeRED uses to contact residents in the case of an emergency. Residents can also log onto the CodeRED website and enter their cellphone numbers and email addresses to receive additional notifications, but there is no option to receive only email or cellphone notifications.
The only way residents can unsubscribe from the program entirely, he said, is to enter their name and telephone number on the county’s “do not call” list.
“We don’t want to put people on the do not call list,” he said in a phone interview. “We don’t want people to unsubscribe. The success of this story would make me want to subscribe,” he said of the additional notification option.
Local police departments enter information based on the emergency and determine the radius of people to alert. In the instance of the missing elderly woman, said Chief Sarlo, the department chose a two-mile radius because the woman was “pretty active.”
“We based it on her walking patterns and how long she’d been missing,” said Chief Sarlo. “We fill out the forms and submit them to the system for the county to be able to put notifications out.”
Chief Sarlo said one of the complaints about the most recent CodeRED alert was the expansive radius.
“A few people had said to me two miles is too far and no one is going to make it that far on foot,” he said. “And I agree, and I get that.”
The alert was the department’s second attempt at using the system, he added. The only other time it was used was during a major storm two years ago to recommend that residents living in low-lying areas evacuate their homes.
“It’s been in place to spread the word as rapidly as possible,” Chief Sarlo said of CodeRED. “We will evaluate the scope of the distances and the timing that we used in the future, and take the concerns from citizens under advisement. But we feel it’s a good and effective system, and we were able to get this woman home.”