Technology

The president texted you — sort of — this is why

Taos County also adding mass notification tools for emergencies

By Cody Hooks
chooks@taosnews.com
Posted 10/11/18

Cellphones across the country lit up last week with a short message that looked like a text from the president. The alert wasn't actually a text from …

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Technology

The president texted you — sort of — this is why

Taos County also adding mass notification tools for emergencies

Posted

Cellphones across the country lit up last week with a short message that looked like a text from the president. The alert wasn't actually a text from Donald Trump, but a test of a nationwide emergency warning system that is the latest version of a wailing siren in the center of town.

The "presidential alert" message arrived Wednesday (Oct. 3) at 12:18 Mountain Standard Time and was sent to the vast majority of cellphones in the United States. It was the very first national test of the Wireless Emergency Alert system.

For decades, the government has conducted monthly tests of the country's Emergency Alert System -- those notorious interruptions to TV and radio programming that say, "This is a test." Wireless alerts essentially look like a text message with a special tone and vibration, but are akin to those other types of alerts.

Wednesday's alert read, "THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed."

The test was planned for Sept. 20 but delayed due to ongoing emergency response efforts for Hurricane Florence.

The cellphone-based alert system was approved by Congress in 2006 with the passages of the WARN Act. Most phones made since 2012 have included a dedicated pathway for such emergency alerts, meaning they won't be delayed if cell towers are clogged with other messages. People can opt out of some types of emergency notices -- AMBER alerts for missing children, and severe weather warnings -- but not presidential alerts.

Unlike Trump's Twitter account, filled with posts of up to 280 characters on any topic of the day, presidential alerts are under 90 characters, come with clear instructions and are "designed to get your attention in a critical situation," according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The wireless alerts are just one component of the county's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS, a single interface for various alert types and technologies.

Though federal and state-level public safety agencies can issue IPAWS warnings, so can local governments. Taos County is now among them.

The county recently approved a $25,0000 contract with Regroup Mass Notification, a company headquartered in California. Through that contract, Taos County got approval from FEMA to be an "alerting authority," meaning it can send critical notices to all cellphones in a particular area in the event of an emergency, such as a wildfire, intense flooding, an active shooter or a gas outage of the scale that crippled Taos in 2011.

The contract also gives the county the tools to send other, less critical messages to people who opt-in. Taos County residents can sign up on the county's website (link and instructions in the box on this page) to receive those message via text, voice call (to a cell or landline) and email.

"This system is something I feel is very much needed for our community," said Bobby Lucero, the county's emergency department director. "There's no other real big way to send out information about major (emergencies)."

Lucero said that folks who opt-in to the messages could also receive alerts related to vehicle accidents, power outages and road construction. The county also has specific groups set up for law enforcement officers, firefighters, county staff and elected officials for internal communications.

Taos County Commissioner Candyce O'Donnell, whose district includes the hemmed-in Peñasco Valley, worries for residents who aren't tech savvy. "I imagine it will be under utilized by constituents," she said, adding the county could send out notices in solid waste bills in order to reach a broader swathe of residents.

Lucero said the county will soon start a campaign to get people to sign up for their alerts and will assist people who have trouble.

This isn't the only attempt to have a mass notification service for emergencies in Taos County. Lucero said the county at one time had a reverse 911 system in place, but that contracting with Regroup proved to be "easier all the way around." He said municipalities and counties around New Mexico use different companies for their mass notification system, and FEMA reports about five counties are alerting authorities through IPAWS.

Taos County officials did not say if new equipment was required for the Regroup notification system.

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