Laguna Beach, Calif., Has Access to the Same System Used for Presidential Alerts

The city was authorized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to send its own alerts through the system in May.

by Erika I. Ritchie, The Orange County Register / October 3, 2018

(TNS) — On Wednesday, Oct. 3, cell phones nationwide will buzz with an alert from the National Wireless Emergency Notification System – using a technology Laguna Beach officials already made sure they have access to when residents are in danger.

This seaside town, which still remembers a devastating fire nearly 25 years ago that set ablaze 440 homes, became earlier this summer the first city in Orange County to get the authority to send out its own wireless emergency alerts.

The city can access the same system that will be activated at 11:18 a.m. PST on Wednesday for the first time by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in coordination with the Federal Communication Commission for a nationwide test alert.

The message will read: “This is a test of the National Wireless Emergency Notification System. No action is needed.”

“They’ve never tested the ability of the federal government to send text messages to everyone’s phones,” said Jordan Villwock, who manages Laguna Beach’s Emergency Operation Center and is chairman of the Orange County Emergency Management Organization.

While the test will be a new concept for most cities in Orange County, Laguna Beach was authorized in May by the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to send its own alerts.

“This is big because in an emergency and disaster, seconds matter,” said Villwock. “We can message quicker than the county.”

Previously, Laguna Beach city officials had to request an emergency alert be put out by the county, Villwock said. “In a tsunami situation there could be multiple coastal towns involved. If each wanted to send an emergency alert, how would the county decide which goes out first? How would it contain specifics for each city.”

With the wireless notification system, Villwock and other city officials can send Laguna Beach residents clear directions that are specific to their needs in an emergency.

During the 150-acre Aliso Fire that in June forced the evacuation of 1,500 residents from 600 homes in the Top of the World neighborhood, Villwock used Alert OC to send information to impacted residents with landlines or those who had signed up with the county system. Not all were notified.

Now, with wireless emergency system, Villwock can broaden his message to those who have not signed up for the county service or are visiting in Laguna. The city annually has 6.5 million tourists.

The wireless emergency alert system pings any cell phones within the city’s cell service area.

“If someone is visiting from Boston and is at Main Beach and a tsunami occurs, the wireless alert will be sent to all cell phone regardless of the area code,” Villwock said.

Though the alerts can provide specific and detailed information more quickly, it does have some limitations. At present, the message can only transmit 90 characters. Legislation in Sacramento is addressing this and could expand it to 360 characters next year, Villwock said.

Other emergency alert systems in place in Orange County include the traditional alert that interrupt TV and radios and Alert OC, which residents can sign up for by geographical location. Villwock encourages county residents to sign up at AlertOC.com and include their emails and cellphone numbers.

Villwock has been working on the city’s overall preparedness since 2015. Getting access to the wireless emergency alert system was a critical piece to Laguna Beach officials.

“We have several hazards living in Orange County that we need to prepare for,” he said. “Preparedness gives you peace of mind and makes your job easier if something happens.”

Last month, Villwock received the State Gold Award from the California Emergency Service Association for an evacuation and shelter-in-place plan he developed. The plan divides the city into 20 evacuation zones and provides a template, which includes emergency notifications, press releases and protocols, to guide public officials during an emergency. Villwock’s plan will become a starting point for other cities to use.

Earlier this year, Villwock also launched the Prepare Laguna Beach campaign challenging community members to create an emergency plan and kit. The goal is to reach 25 percent of the homes in Laguna by the Oct. 23, the anniversary of the 1993 Laguna Fire.

On Monday, Lisa Kneedler, visiting from Hendersonville, N.C., walked along the promenade at Main Beach. Having just experienced Hurricane Florence, she was especially keen to know of Laguna’s new wireless emergency notification system.

“It’s absolutely critical,” she said. “It’s something anyone can get during any hour of the day or night. Access to TV is an antiquated way of communication. It’s much more accessible through cell phones. Everyone always has one on them. I think as a tourist here, it’s wonderful you’re not excluded.”

©2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.