Everything Summit County needs to know about FEMA new emergency alert system
September 24, 2018
Wherever you are next Wednesday, you're likely to experience a quick moment of shock as your phone begins buzzing and a loud and unfamiliar tone starts ringing from your pocket. But don't panic, it's only a test.
On Oct. 3 the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in coordination with the Federal Communications Commission, will be conducting a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System and the Wireless Emergency Alert System. At around 12:18 p.m., a test "Presidential Alert" will be sent out to phones around the nation with a message that reads, "THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed." About two minutes later, the Emergency Alert System will be distributed through radio and television broadcasts, cable systems, satellite radio and television providers, and wireline video providers.
The tests are meant to assess the nation's readiness to distribute emergency alerts nationwide, and to determine if improvements are needed. The messages will be sent using FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, also known as IPAWS, the nation's preeminent alert and warning infrastructure.
"(IPAWS) is kind of the benchmark in mass notification," said Brian Bovaird, director of the Summit County Office of Emergency Management. "It's the one certain way that we have to know that information is getting out in an emergency."
While IPAWS was designed as a national alert system, local governments have taken to using the system in recent years. That includes Summit County, which integrated Wireless Emergency Alerts into its emergency management procedures last April. Some members of the Summit community have already experienced the alert first hand, as the system got its first use this June to send alerts regarding the Buffalo Fire evacuations in Silverthorne.
Despite the county already having its own emergency warning system in SC Alerts, Bovaird said that the integration of IPAWS would provide the county with a more efficient means of emergency notification.
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"In Summit County, ultimately, I think this makes us more resilient," said Bovaird. "If we can get information that's timely and accurate out to the majority of the population, whether it's limiting the affects of the disaster or assisting in dealing with it, that's a huge advantage over not having that. In times of emergency, public information is huge. For our community it creates a level of resilience and safety that previously wasn't there."
IPAWS differs in a few key ways from SC Alerts. The biggest and most important difference is that while users have to sign up for SC Alerts, IPAWS alerts are automatically sent to every phone within a pre-determined area. This means that if an emergency breaks out in the area, officials are able to trace a perimeter around that spot and send alerts specifically to those affected. It also means that individuals who haven't signed up for SC Alerts, often including large tourist populations, will also be notified.
"You don't have to sign up for it," continued Bovaird. "So if I initiate a Wireless Emergency Alert it's going to go to every phone in a designated area that I choose. So if there are 20,000 people in Breckenridge, and none of them are local or signed up for SC Alerts, we can still initiate that WEA if there's an emergency and everybody gets pinged. It's really useful, especially in a community like Summit with tons of visitors."
In addition, IPAWS isn't reliant on normal cell service that is often an issue in the mountains. This means that even if you're unable to receive a text or phone call, you'll still receive the IPAWS alert if you're within range of an active cell tower.
Since its integration last April, the county has issued four IPAWS alerts. The first three included evacuation notices for Mesa Cortina and Wildernest residents during the Buffalo Mountain Fire. The fourth was sent in July on the night of The String Cheese Incident's performance in Dillon, warning visitors camping near trailheads of the fire restrictions in town.
In general IPAWS will be used when there is a time sensitive and critical issue that requires public action like evacuations. The system will be used in conjunction with SC Alerts, which will send out ancillary information about the situation. Bovaird used the example of a flash flood in the area. IPAWS would inform individuals in the area of evacuations and shelters, and SC Alerts would provide information about upcoming weather forecasts and things of that nature.
But the system is far from perfect. IPAWS is currently limited to English language messaging; meaning any alerts that gets sent out may need to be supplemented by SC Alerts which can send messages in Spanish, French and Russian. Additionally, IPAWS messages often have a "bleed over" phenomenon, wherein messages will be sent outside of the predetermined area.
While bleed over often covers about 1-2 miles, Bovaird said that due to the mountainous terrain, messages in Summit have bled over up to 10 miles outside of the target range. He noted that cutting down on false alarms for unaffected people is one focus for the county, especially given the sometimes-traumatic nature of receiving a real life alert.
"We're sensitive to the fact that members of our community have been affected by life safety situations," said Bovaird. "We don't want to bring up memories of people fleeing their homes. There's a psychological component to it for those who have gotten those messages for real, and that's something we consider."
But everyone, regardless of location, will be receiving an alert next week. The upcoming test comes as a result of the IPAWS Modernization Act that became law in April 2016, and requires that FEMA test the system once every three years to ensure that under all conditions the president, federal agencies and state, local and tribal governments can alert the public in areas endangered by acts of terrorism, natural disasters and other threats to public safety.
Most modern cellphones are compatible with the system. Check your phone's user manual or contact your mobile provider to find out.
Regardless of new technologies and upgrades to emergency notification systems, Bovaird emphasized that the community needs to be ready to respond in the rare circumstances alerts are issued. He recommended that residents create an emergency plan for themselves and their families, including a "go-kit" with food and necessary medication in case of an emergency evacuation.
"It's great we have these tools and systems," said Bovaird. "But a big part of this is having a prepared community so when we do encounter a situation where the public has to take emergency action they're ready."