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Yakima Residents Urged to Sign Up for Wildfire Alerts

When there's an event like the fast-moving wildfire that spread near Old Naches Highway last week, one of the best ways to get accurate, urgent information is the county's Alert Yakima system.

A red helicopter above flames in a wildfire.
(TNS) - Signing up for Alert Yakima Sign up online: https://member. 453003085612758#/signup Sign up over the phone: Call Yakima Emergency Management at 509-574-1900

When there's an event like the fast-moving wildfire that spread near Old Naches Highway last week, one of the best ways to get accurate, urgent information is the county's Alert Yakima system.

Yakima Valley Emergency Management, the office that coordinates emergency operations, uses the Alert Yakima system to reach out to residents when fires and other hazards threaten their homes. The system sends out alerts through voice, text and email, notifying residents of fires, floods, hazardous materials or other dangers, said Director Tony Miller.

"That's our notification if there's a disaster or a fire, if they need to evacuate," he said. "We want to get the information out as soon as possible to make sure people get out safely."

While no evacuation notices were issued for the 600-plus acre fire last week, things can change quickly during fire season.

Local emergency officials have worked to improve translation services and are trying to get more community members to sign up. Fewer than half of Yakima County's population are set up to receive alerts.

Notifications can be sent in multiple languages in as soon as five minutes after officials decide to issue an evacuation notice.

How does it work?

Miller said Alert Yakima is part of his office's response any time there is an emergency that threatens Yakima County residents. Community members can sign up through an online portal or call Yakima Emergency Management at 509-574-1900.

When people sign up, they can choose the order in which they'll receive a phone call, text or email alert. During an emergency, alerts will be sent out and stop when the recipient replies to confirm they have received it.

Home phones on landlines are already connected to the Alert Yakima system and are a majority of the roughly 81,000 sign-ups for alerts. Miller said there are about 10,000 people who have signed up themselves or been signed up by Emergency Management staff using the Alert Yakima web portal.

Miller hoped to add sign-ups.

"We'd love to have at least 200,000 signed up," he said.

One of the advantages of having a cellphone signed up, Miller said, is that if a cellphone is in an area being evacuated, its user will be notified.

Emergency Management identifies zones for evacuation by geo fencing — drawing and selecting areas on a map that need to be notified or evacuated. If people are not at their normal address, but are within an evacuation zone, they would be able to learn of nearby hazards quickly.

Miller said he and his staff still go door to door during emergencies. He's noticed people who receive Alert Yakima messages are often better prepared during evacuations. They're able to collect more of their belongings and evacuate sooner.

Translating alerts

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 37,000 Yakima residents speak English "less than very well," and 97% of those community members speak Spanish.

Miller said Yakima Emergency Management has increased its ability to translate messages. Emergency alerts are now sent out in English and Spanish. Templates are pre-made for certain emergencies with both languages so they can be sent out as soon as possible.

Miller added that Emergency Management has options when the templates won't work or when specific messages are needed.

Officials work with translators at SunComm's 911 Call Center, local nonprofits like Neighborhood Health and the state's new translation portal. Miller said having multiple options for translating services is a good thing.

"We want to get the right message out," he said. "We have two or three different sources we go to. If we can't get a hold of one, we'll go right to the next one."

Privacy concerns

Miller said one concern that often comes up is privacy; many Yakima residents are unsure about sharing their contact information. He said contact information is kept in a secure database by Everbridge, the company that operates Alert Yakima and other systems like it across the U.S.

"People, when they give out their information, they're worried it could be used for the wrong reasons. It's not," Miller said.

He added that the most important information to include when signing up is accurate contact information.

"If you're worried about it, you don't even have to put your real name," Miller said.

©2023 Yakima Herald-Republic (Yakima, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.