Communication

Emergency Alerts Connect Communities When Danger Looms

Will you know what’s going on if a disaster strikes your community someday?

You will if you sign up with your local government to receive emergency alerts on your smartphone, a tablet or another device. Tens of thousands of residents in the Capital Region have already done so and their numbers are rising as emergency communications’ speed and utility improve.

In urgent situations, Emergency Alerts can tell people what to do, where to go and how to stay informed. Triggers may include severe weather, emergency road closures, utility breakdowns and public safety incidents.

Whatever the reason, alerts can be received in a variety of ways — by text, email, cell phone, home land line, work phone, instant message or fax. Or a combination. Recipients get to choose when they sign up. They may also register multiple addresses to get alerts for different areas such as school, work and home. Registration is free, fast and done online on local most government websites.

For example, in Fairfax County, you can easily sign up at https://fairfaxcounty.gov/alerts. In Montgomery County, you can visit their website to sign up for similar updates at http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/oemhs/alertmontgomery. District of Columbia residents can enroll easily at alertdc.dc.gov.

At least 18 jurisdictions in the area provide such alerts to residents that opt in for them. The list, viewable at capitalalert.gov, includes five counties neighboring the District of Columbia and 11 cities in those counties. As a result, it’s possible for some people who live and work in different cities in the area to request alerts specific to both places and everywhere along their commute.

Opt-in alert services are one component of local governments’ emergency communications with residents. Another is Wireless Emergency Alerts, a technology built into all cell phones that allows public safety agencies to send emergency notifications to all cell phones in targeted geographic areas. The Amber Alerts used for abducted children are an example of that.

A third technology, known as Reverse 9-1-1, allows officials to send emergency voice alerts to all land line phones in selected areas – even those not registered for opt-in alerts.

The Capital Region has used opt-in alerts since the early 2000s, but their capabilities improved in 2014 when local governments jointly adopted a more modern system provided by a private company, Everbridge.

Currently, opt-in alerts are only available to be sent in English, but that could change in the near future as language translation software becomes more accurate and reliable. Some emergency management officials doubt that translation software is yet as good as it needs to be for alerts. No one wants to risk issuing a non-English alert with a critical word mistranslated. But, getting out alerts to more of the region’s diverse population is critical too.

In Fairfax County, where eight languages are spoken, “We’re starting down the road of ‘It might not be perfect, but maybe it’s good enough,’’’ said Paul Lupe, who manages the Fairfax Alert program.

Spanish language alerts could be a year away in Montgomery County, said Chuck Crisostomo, who is Lupe’s counterpart in that county.

Language isn’t the only barrier for alert systems’ expansion. Lupe explained that a county-sponsored study found that single parents, people without vehicles, and those below the poverty line were underrepresented in Fairfax County alerts.

Emergency events do help drive up enrollments through word-of-mouth, according to Crisostomo. When someone tells co-workers about a storm alert that popped up on their phone, this encourages those people to sign up.

Alert Montgomery has about 220,000 subscribers and they typically share alerts with one or two others. Crisostomo estimates the county is reaching 25% to 30% of its population.

Crisostomo personally experienced the value of a timely warning at an outdoor concert in 2006.

An alert flashed on his phone – “Take Cover Now” – ahead of a fast-moving storm with 60 mile-an-hour gusts. Crisostomo and others quickly herded 400 people into a building nearby. Crisostomo shared that the stage canopy blew away, but thankfully nobody was hurt.

Without that warning, “I don’t know what would have happened,” he said.


By Doug Carroll

Doug Carroll is a board member of the Windsor Park Home Owners Association, a townhouse community near Alexandria, VA. He was a business reporter and later a business editor at USA TODAY for nearly 30 years.

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