Fires Test Cellphone Emergency Alert System

The fires in Northern California and Orange County have tested an emergency alert system designed to warn people on their cellphones about an emergency.

Some have questioned when the alerts have or have not been sent out.

In the past you would have to be on the radio or watching television to get an emergency alert, but for the wireless emergency alerts, all you need is a cellphone. The system is run by the federal government but local emergency officials decide when to send out these alerts leading to calculated moments of risk and reward.

It is the warning sound that an emergency is happening somewhere near you.

"It's designed to wake you up at 2 a.m. from a dead sleep so that you don't die," said Kate Hutton, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Emergency Management Department.

Hutton says these warnings include the "wireless emergency alert" or WEA.

"We have to select how urgent, how certain and how severe the incident might be," Hutton said.

Cell towers are used to target who receives the warnings. Incident commanders designate when the warning is needed. Emergency officials map out where the alerts will go.

One from Orange County called for mandatory evacuations when the Canyon Fire 2 erupted.

"We have to balance what information we include in those alerts so we don't send out undo fear and undo panic, but also that the right people make the right decisions at the right time," Hutton said.

LA city's last wireless emergency alert in August 2016 described an active shooter situation at LAX. There was no shooter but people were sent running.
 
"LAX was a great learning experience for us in terms of how we send out messages and to who we send out messages," Hutton said.

She said they will also be learning from the recent deadly fire in Northern California. No wireless emergency alert was sent out. Emergency officials said they did not want to cause a traffic jam. Their actions were criticized as the fire caught people off guard.

Hutton says traffic is a real concern.

"If you are on a narrow street, coming out of a canyon, there is only one way in and out," she said.

While WEA is good, 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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