Code Blue Warming

Denise Hiteshew, 37, of Vineland, visits Trinity United Methodist Church in Millville, a Code Blue warming shelter for Cumberland County, on a night in December.

Warming shelters will host more guests in the years to come. However, plans on the public and private levels likely will generate mixed results.

Code Blue alerts, intended to assist municipalities in protecting vulnerable citizens during cold weather, were expanded under a law recently signed by Gov. Phil Murphy.

The change in criteria has been accepted positively by those who work directly with the law, though funding remains an issue.

On Jan. 21, Murphy signed into law new criteria for Code Blue. Alerts are now triggered any time the National Weather Service predicts a temperature of 32 degrees or lower. Previously, alerts were activated when temperatures were predicted to fall below 25 degrees without precipitation, or below 32 with precipitation.

“I was in tears when it passed. I was just really, really excited when it happened,” said Paul Hulse, president and CEO of Just Believe Inc. in Toms River, which operates warming shelters In Ocean County.

According to the Iowa State Environmental Mesonet, 101.1 nights per year experience a low temperature below 32 degrees at Atlantic City International Airport. That’s well above the 31 Code Blue alerts issued in Atlantic County last winter.

Vince Jones, coordinator for the Atlantic County Office of Emergency Management, said the law is well-intentioned and serves an important purpose, but questions where the funding to pay for it will come from.

“We felt that they did their homework when it came to the weather part of it and how temperatures affect the body,” Jones said. “They did their due diligence there. However, it’s going to create more Code Blue nights and there’s going to be more costs involved and it just didn’t get addressed.”

The bill states that “the act shall take effect immediately,” though different counties implemented the law at different points.

Jones said that after speaking with the New Jersey Association of Counties, the new standards went into effect for the Code Blue issued this weekend.

In Cumberland County, officials believed it did not go into effect until the following winter. However, as of Feb. 18, the county utilizes the new criteria. 

Cape May County changed its criteria immediately after the bill’s passage.

The lack of funding on the state level has caused additional confusion and frustration, Jones said.

“You’re going to have a lot of Code Blue nights. Who’s putting them up, who’s paying for them? We’re stuck now on the back end with this new law,” Jones said.

The M25 Initiative, a nonprofit that operates warming shelters in Cumberland County and offers amenities like food, beds and worship, said they cannot continue in their current capacity given the law change. One night of Code Blue costs about $500 for the county with volunteer forces, Rob Weinstein, president and founder of M25, said in an earlier interview.

“While we remain committed to the spirit and goal of the program, we believe that the long-term needs of the program, along with the limited human resources of the M25 Initiative, require more operational leadership and resources than our volunteer board can offer,” the group said in a letter to Cumberland County officials.

The group is looking to others for support.

“I think we were more looking toward a county agency of some sort and partner with them. ... We want to partner with another organization,” Arrigo said.

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