Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wireless Emergency Alerts - the loud buzz many of us received on our cell phone last week

Many people in La Plata County were woken up early one morning by a loud buzzing on our cell phone. When we looked we found an Emergency Alert for an Amber Alert issued in Greenwood, CO.

This was not issued by La Plata County - it was issued when the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received and distributed the alert over our whole state, and maybe further through the WEA system.

The alert is issued through what is called the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) managed through the FCC. All new phones are required to have the system included in their operating system and cell providers have been required to participate beginning this year.

Back in the cold war days the Emergency Alert System was designed to allow presidential messages ("we're under attack!") to be broadcast across the country quickly. TV and Radio stations had black boxes that received the messages and operators/DJ's etc would convey the information. 

Over time other alerts like for tornadoes, hurricanes and amber alerts piggybacked on the system to alert targeted areas of the population. Over time, the system has become archaic and doesn't work as well anymore with how TV and Radio operate. SatelliteTV, CableTV, Internet streaming, Satellite radio and central radio broadcasting have taken over. Your local broadcast may be coming from Dallas or Nashville and our TV in Durango, CO comes from Albuquerque. NM. The system was designed to compliment (or take over from)  the old tickertape on the TV and alerts on the radio. The FCC realized that most people have cell phones and devised a way to target messages geographically based on tower locations and cell info.

The great advantage is that the system is targeted geographically (Amber Alerts and Presidential Alerts are broad based). Soon, we will be able to tie our Reverse-911 system to the WEA so we can include people who don't have land line phones or who are from out of the area. It would be great to send an alert across land lines and cell phones simultaneously to residents and tourists. 

Think about a flash flood affecting a campground along a creek. Today there is no way to alert visitors other than in person, which takes time. 

We, La Plata County OEM, have not used the system for a local emergency yet, but I'm sure we will.  If you want to learn more, check out your cell provider website and search for wireless emergency alerts. 

The system will sent three types of alerts:
  1. Presidential Alert
  2. Amber Alert
  3. Alerts involving imminent threats to safety or life
We will focus on imminent threats, those that are immediate, sudden and will cause loss of life if you are not prepared for it. What could that be in La Plata County?
  1. Immediate Evacuation such as from a wildfire or flood
  2. Imminent flash flood
  3. Hazardous material release, potential explosion etc.
  4. Terrorist type activity
  5. Dam break
  6. Tornado (yes we can have them here) 
There is the ability to turn off all but Presidential Alerts. Please don't turn them off. Yes the sound can be annoying, that is the point. The alerts are only used in a dire circumstance. This is only the second time I have seen an alert since the program became active, both were Amber Alerts from the front range.  I would hope that residents here would want to get the Amber Alert if it were a member of our community. I would also hope that you would want to get a Tornado Warning driving across Texas, or a Flash Flood Alert in Vallecito. This is a case where Big Brother is really watching out for us!

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1 comment:

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