Iowans in almost every county can now get instant messages about threatening weather, missing persons, and other emergency situations unfolding nearby.

Tracey Bearden, the 911 coordinator for the Polk County Emergency Management Agency, says Iowa’s most populous county is upgrading from Code Red to the new Alert Iowa system starting today.

“We are going to be using it for weather alerts, for warnings to include severe thunderstorm warnings, tornado warnings, flood warnings, blizzard warnings, flash flood warnings, and extremely high wind warnings,” Bearden says. “Citizens can go to our website and an opt in for that.”

Iowans can pick how they’d like to be notified, whether it’s by voice on a landline phone, by text to a cell phone, or by email. Bearden says it’s important to stay connected, especially if there’s a missing child or adult, dangerous storms, search-and-rescue, or an active crime scene.

“We’ve had in the past where citizens have called and wondered why they didn’t receive information,” Bearden says. “One case was, they had to shelter in place because of an armed suspect inside a home and they didn’t know what was going on.”

There’s no charge for the service and if you don’t opt-in, she says you could miss important safety information.

“So if you go to the Iowa Emergency Management Homeland Security website, you can see which counties have opted in and which have not,” Bearden says, “but the majority, I think there’s only four to six that have not opted into the Alert Iowa system. So that’s a good thing. You need to opt in for each individual county.”

The alerts will tell users what’s happening, what local officials are doing to protect the community, and what users need to do to remain safe. Bearden says a follow-up alert will be sent to inform users when the emergency is over.