Only 2,880 of San Luis Obispo County’s 281,000 residents are signed up for the Sheriff’s Office Reverse 911 system that sends alerts to people’s cellphones in cases of extreme weather, natural disasters, fires and other emergencies.
That represents about 1 percent of the population.
In the wake of several recent natural disasters worldwide — like the 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Mexico, hurricanes and the sweeping Santa Rosa fires that ripped through Northern California this month — authorities are encouraging more people to sign up for emergency alerts.
County residents with landlines, regardless of their service, receive calls in emergency situations.
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And other methods of emergency notification are in place, such as the federal Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, which provides notifications by default on people’s cellphones. It is used by the California Highway Patrol, the County Office of Emergency Services, the National Weather Service and even the president, said Ron Alsop, the county’s emergency services manager.
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How to register for Reverse 911
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Radio and television warnings of threatening and dangerous events, like flash floods, fires and dam failures, as well as Diablo Canyon’s emergency sirens, also can warn people during crisis situations. Authorities will even go door to door.
But county officials would like to see more people register on the Reverse 911 system than the meager number signed up currently. The system provides people with information about incident updates, evacuations, road closures, safety precautions and more.
“From our standpoint, I’d love to see every cellphone in the county on the system,” said Judy Gallo, the sheriff’s technology supervisor. “We’d rather that a lot of people get the same notice three times than the one person who needs it not get it.”
Alerts are used only in emergency situations. Cellphone numbers aren’t shared or sold.
The WEA system has been used since 2002 and doesn’t require registration, Alsop said. Text notifications are currently limited to 90 characters, though the Federal Communications Commission is working on increasing that total to 360 characters on new technology cell systems, Alsop said.
“People’s cellphones will be alerted by default,” Alsop said. “There’s no need to sign up. Most people don’t even know they can turn off their alert systems. But some do, and those people won’t receive the notifications unless they turn them back on.”
But Alsop said that system works more as a warning and those signed up for Reverse 911 could get more detailed information.
The CHP issues Amber Alerts through WEA, informing people of missing or abducted children. The National Weather Service also uses it to send out alerts on tsunami warnings, flash floods and extreme winds.
From our standpoint, I’d love to see every cellphone in the county on the system.
Judy Gallo, Sheriff’s Office technology supervisor
Alsop said that with predictions that California is overdue for a major earthquake that could knock out power and potentially limit food and water supplies, the more prepared people can be the better.
“As agencies, we’re as prepared as our resources allow,” Alsop said. “But for residents, on an individual basis, people can be a lot more prepared than they are. The Reverse 911 is a good sign of that.”