It’s easy to confuse who is sending which emergency alerts. And they come from a lot of places.
Which is why Pierce County Emergency Management issued a release after April’s late-night Amber Alert, to say, that time, it wasn’t them.
“There are a lot of systems coming on board that are popping up,” spokeswoman Sheri Badger told The News Tribune at the time. She added the clarification was to help “the average citizen figure out these different things, and making sure that an irate resident receiving an alert at 3 a.m. doesn’t put any negativity toward Emergency Management when it’s not sent out by us.”
A Pierce County alert that rang landline phones at 4:20 a.m. in November 2012 was locally handled and unrelated to the federal wireless alert system. The subject of that call, a missing developmentally disabled teenager, was found safe.
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But making the federal system compatible with other types of alerts is the long-term plan.
Boston uses the same company as Pierce County for emergency communications, and the city used it in addition to a wireless alert to coordinate efforts after the Boston Marathon bombings in April.
“I know in the future one of FEMA’s goals is to have it in a standardized format, so that if a message is sent as a wireless emergency alert, it can be picked up and sent by other formats,” said Chris Besse, preparedness coordinator with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
Massachusetts sent a wireless emergency alert warning residents to “shelter in place” during the manhunt for the bombing suspects – a message cited by emergency officials as one of the system’s biggest successes.
“We tried to tell people what it was, but even on Twitter and other social media, we saw a bunch of comments,” Besse said. “‘What was that noise? I didn’t sign up for this. Where did this come from?’ It really is a very new thing nationwide.”
He said Massachusetts has a separate, state opt-in mobile emergency alert system as well.
And even if the various alert systems aren’t yet all compatible technology-wise, he says the more, the merrier.
“There’s no one system that reaches everyone,” he said. “Every community and state kind of uses of variety of tools to communicate with residents.”