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If You Help, Emergency Alerts Can Reach Your Phone

Officials count on the alerts as the most effective way to reach our nose-in-the-phone culture with timely information about not just wildfires, but also earthquakes, floods and other disasters.

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An example of the emergency phone alert system in Southern California. (Photo Illustration by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Photo Illustration by Leonard/TNS
(TNS) - As the highest temperatures of the year bake already dry brush and trees, increasing the year-round threat of wildfires spreading out of control, authorities in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties are encouraging Southern California residents to sign up for alerts that instantly send emergency messages to their phones.

Officials count on the alerts as the most effective way to reach our nose-in-the-phone culture with timely information about not just wildfires, but also earthquakes, floods and other disasters.

“Alerting is an evolving art. As people have changed the way they communicate, we are having to evolve,” said Shane Reichardt, a spokesman for the Riverside County Emergency Management Department.

Some of the messages are automatically zipped to targeted locations by bouncing them off selected cell towers. Other messages must be signed up for, and that’s when things can get complicated and alerts can be missed, underscoring the need, officials say, to register online for multiple systems.

Holly McMillan, who with husband Scott has lived in Norco for 10 years, is attuned to the importance of the alert systems better than most.

She created a Facebook page, Norco Emergency Information Only, after the April 2015 fire at Prado Dam that prompted authorities to order several neighborhoods to evacuate. McMillan posts information on current emergencies, how to prevent and prepare for disasters and other public service announcements.

“Our yard, it looked like it had snowed, with the ash. I didn’t know how to get my horses to safety, and I said ‘I’ll never be in that position again,’ ” said McMillan, 52, who lives in the bluffs area of Horsetown USA.

McMillan, beyond signing up for alerts from her city and the countywide Alert RivCo, is registered with systems in Corona and Eastvale, and Orange and LA counties.

“Fires don’t respect lines,” she said.

The alert platform in San Bernardino County is called Telephone Emergency Notification System. The county also has an app, Ready San Bernardino County, that provides some of the same information. Alert LA County offers mass notification, as does NotifyLA, which is operated by the city of Los Angeles.

The alert systems basically work like this, with some variations:

If an incident commander wants to evacuate an area, he can provide the names of the bordering streets to an emergency management department. The information will be sent to the cell towers within that area, and the signal — as long as it is strong enough — will reach all cell phones physically present in that area, regardless of whether the owner has registered the phone. The signal delivers a voice message and text message to cell phones. Separately, a voice message is sent to landlines in that area regardless of whether they are registered.

Some people who live just outside the evacuation area might also receive that alert. But a person who lives in Corona but is away working in Hemet would not, unless they had registered a work phone number there and email address with Alert RivCo, Reichardt said.

“The biggest thing is that people don’t realize they are not signed up” because they are used to automatically receiving Amber alerts and weather bulletins, Reichardt said.

There are seven cities in Riverside County that have their own alert systems: Banning, Corona, Hemet, Riverside, Temecula, Moreno Valley and Palm Springs. There are links to those cities’ alert sign-ups on the individual city websites as well as the Alert RivCo website. But a person signed up only with Alert RivCo will not automatically receive those cities’ messages.

The system in Orange County is a bit different. Most cities that want to immediately send emergency messages piggyback off the countywide AlertOC, making it vital to register for that system as well, said Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

“We’re so on the go these days that signing up for AlertOC gives you the ability to get that emergency alert no matter where you are,” she said.

But the Coastal fire in Laguna Niguel in May, in which 20 homes were destroyed and another 11 damaged, raised questions about AlertOC.

Stephanie Oddo, a Laguna Niguel City Council candidate, told county supervisors at their May 24 meeting that a couple who had been evacuated complained to her that they did not receive orders to leave from AlertOC despite having registered.

“I don’t have to explain to you why it is important for our AlertOC system to work when there’s an actual emergency,” Oddo said. “I’d like to ask you to review the system.”

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, whose district includes Laguna Niguel, promised Oddo that the county would.

Bartlett, in an interview on Friday, June 10 , said some residents — it was unclear whether they were the same with whom Oddo spoke — told her they didn’t receive evacuation orders, either. It turned out that those people live just outside the neighborhoods targeted by AlertOC in that alert.

“You can see how complicated it gets,” Bartlett said. “You can sign up for a number of the alerts in the OC system but you could be out of one of those zones. … Fires can spread very quickly in densely populated areas, so we need to consider redrawing those evacuation zones.”

Alerts should take into account the few evacuation routes in the Laguna Niguel area, Bartlett said, and help residents navigate the potential traffic congestion.

Bartlett said she is encouraging cities, counties and police and fire departments to discuss how to reach the most people efficiently and accurately. She also wondered if there was a way to connect Orange County alert systems to the statewide 211 system, which helps people find food, mental health, housing and job-training services, to eliminate the need to sign up for several platforms.

“People don’t just live, work and play in a particular area of the county and we need to be able to get in touch with those individuals in the event of an emergency,” she said. “Are we comfortable with the procedures we have in place?”

But emergency management officials are wary of sending alerts that might not be relevant to some people.

“We’re very aware of alert fatigue,” Riverside County’s Reichardt said.

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