Should local jurisdictions get their own notification system?

Many local jurisdictions rely on their county notification system when it comes to alerting their citizens.

Relying on the county to send notifications or provide access to a notification system can save local governments money.  But when every second counts, your county’s emergency alert system may not be the best solution.

And with climate change, hurricanes, wildfires, tornados and other natural disasters becoming more frequent and less predictable, emergency alerting authorities need to get out the word faster and more precisely. 

For example, we’re aware of a recent incident where Orange County, CA’s notification  system – AlertOC – was less than effective in warning residents of a wildfire in their jurisdiction. 

A family from the city of Laguna Niguel complained they never received alerts from the ALERTOC system although both parents were signed up for it. Fortunately, one of them – Mike Selvidge – got a text from the city of Laguna Beach, whose alerts he’d signed up for because their house sits right on the border of the two cities. 

When asked why the Orange County sheriff’s department didn’t send out any messaging at the time of the fire, the sheriff’s office said they were focused on door-to-door evacuations. 

And that’s not the only case where a county emergency notification service failed in notifying their residents because of limitations, lack of coordination, bad information, or wrong decisions. We’ve found other examples all over the country:

During the 2017 fires in Sonoma County, officials chose not to utilize WEAs because they were worried about triggering a mass exodus from the region. They did, however, use a different system that allowed them to tailor the outreach. But by the time these alerts were sent, 80 cell phone towers were badly damaged or knocked out entirely, crippling the ability of the message to reach residents.

In 2018 Tennessee, Sevier County officials admitted that emergency alerts were not sent out at all ahead of a wildfire that spread through Gatlinburg, killing 13 people. The officials blamed a breakdown in communication between the city of Gatlinburg, the National Park Service and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency “due to disabled phone, internet and electrical services.”

So how can local jurisdictions speed up their notification process?:

1. Get your own mass notification system. Having your own system gives you more control over your alerts and reduces the ambiguity caused by overlapping jurisdictions. And you’ll be able to send out the alerts as soon as you think they need to be sent. 

2. Include IPAWS as part of your notification system as well. FEMA has made great progress with the precision of geo-targeting and other alerting features of WEA messages. WEA messages can be sent to every single mobile phone in the affected area regardless whether a person is registered for alerts or not. And IPAWS can give you access to other outlets that can survive when cell phone towers are out. 

3. Use advanced features like message templates to be prepared. With message templates, you can have your messages ready to go and just add the specifics of a situation (location, time, etc.).  Hyper-Reach lets you create unlimited, highly flexible message templates to cover every situation.