CA Senators Call for Better Emergency Alert Systems

The Federal Communications System is reviewing letters from two California senators about improving emergency alerts.

A system designed to send emergency alerts to your mobile phone is getting scrutiny from two of California's most powerful politicians.

Questions are being raised about why it was not used during the deadly fires in Northern California that has now claimed 42 lives.

Since the NBC4 I-Team report this week, two senators are getting involved.

The alerts use cell towers to reach mobile phone users, targeting those in the area where an event is happening. Emergency officials dealing with the fires in Northern California say they did not send out the wireless emergency alert because they were concerned about any panic and potential traffic congestion caused if dozens hit the roads at the same time.

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This is a concern for local folks as well, especially because these alerts can sometimes reach people not in the emergency area, a problem that was supposed to be solved a year ago.

Even so, Kate Hutton from the city of Los Angeles Emergency Management Department says when activating a wireless emergency alert, pin pointing an exact location is difficult.

"We do our best to limit those areas, but the technology isn't perfect," she said. "Usually in an emergency you are moving quickly."

California senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris have sent a letter to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, asking him why rules the FCC proposed in September of last year that would enable precise geotargeting of these types of warnings have not been implemented.

They say geotargeting has been standard in mobile applications for years.

An NBC4 I-Team review of the rules also includes increasing the number of characters for these messages from 90 to 360.

They also require wireless providers to support embedding items. So, for example, in an Amber Alert, the public can click to see a photo or to call authorities.

Not every agency has the ability to send wireless emergency alerts. Local officials decide when to send out alerts.

The last time the city of Los Angeles sent out this type of alert was after an active shooter was reported at LAX. People panicked and ran into the streets and even onto the runway.

The alerts notified the public there was no shooter. Hutton says part of the process of sending an alert is making sure it is the best tool at the time.

"If you are evacuating a rural area you might not have a wireless service in all those different canyons," she said.

The FCC said they have received the letter from the senators and are reviewing it.

The city encourages people to sign up for the opt-in emergency notification system. There are four million people who live in LA city.

According to Hutton, many more come through the city every day, but only over 101,000 people have registered to get notifyLA alerts. She says they allow for more information in messages, including street closures or where to find shelter. It can even call people in an emergency.

Hutton encourages people to get on the notifyLA system. You have to sign up but can get alerts based on your ZIP code. Text a ZIP code to 888777.

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