What to do if you get a real emergency alert on your phone

mfountain@thetribunenews.comJuly 1, 2014 

The "civil emergency" alert that was inadvertently sent out to many SLO County residents.

What should you do following a real emergency alert to your cell phone?

That question has weighed on San Luis Obispo County residents’ minds since Friday afternoon’s false alarm, but the answer is clear:

Tune into local media or call the toll-free 211 information service for details. Don’t call government agencies or 911, said Ron Alsop, manager of the San Luis Obispo County Office of Emergency Services.

A new alert could include an instruction to take those steps, instead of the ominous and ambiguous “Prepare for Action” on Friday’s alert, he said.

Wireless emergency alerts — WEAs — like the one that many residents received are sent through wireless carriers’ networks via the same system that sends a user’s mobile device Amber Alerts, if sent by the state, and presidential alerts, if sent by the federal government.

The system is coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and went live in April 2012. When a local emergency prompts the county to issue an emergency alert, FEMA receives the initial alert and sends a wireless alert to wireless providers, who then blast the mobile alert out via their network to devices in the affected region, Alsop explained.

“Once we send that message out to FEMA, it’s gone, and we have no more control over it,” he said.

The wireless alerts are unique. While they may appear as a text message, they actually use a type of technology separate from texts, one that can send a message to a cell phone immediately and is not subject to congestion or delays on wireless networks.

The alerts also use a point-to-multipoint system that sends alerts to WEA-capable phones in a specific region, unlike text messages, which are not location aware.

Mobile phone users are not charged for the service and are automatically enrolled to receive them. Not all mobile devices are WEA-capable, however, namely older devices. To check if a mobile device is capable of receiving the alerts, visit goo.gl/iIQgCm.

Many residents took to social media last week to blast the alert for being too vague. Unfortunately, Alsop said, that’s the limitation of FEMA’s system, which caps alerts at a maximum of 90 characters — less than a 140-character tweet. Alsop said that the Office of Emergency Services on Monday met with the county’s Information Technology Department to make a request to the county’s software vendor to redraft the default message.

If an alert is issued, the Office of Emergency Services will provide local media with details. Alsop said the 211 service should also have details within minutes. If the service does not, residents are urged to wait a few minutes and try again, and avoid tying up government phone lines.

Families should prepare for a true emergency ahead of time by creating a plan for gathering loved ones together and having an emergency kit with food, water and other necessities ready to go, he said.

If there is a silver lining to Friday’s false alarm, Alsop said, it’s that the county now knows its wireless emergency alert system works, as there is no way to test it without residents receiving an alarming message.

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