County implements software to participate in alert system

THE LAKE COUNTY Local Emergency Planning Committee purchased software which will enable dispatchers to issue public safety warnings that could reduce the need for emergency evacuations, such as the above photo showing The Rev. Elizabeth Pagnotta and family from St. John Lutheran Church in the September flooding in Madison.

Lake County is now part of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system which enables individuals to receive geographically-targeted alerts about public safety issues, such as severe weather or the need to evacuate.

"We could send an alert right now," April Denholm, director of 911 Communications, said in a phone interview recently.

The Lake County Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) is responsible for both the decision to obtain the software to offer this service and the funding to pay for the software.

The group, which meets quarterly and holds annual training exercises to test emergency preparedness in the county, receives funding through the state Office of Emergency Management.

In addition, a grant in the amount of $20,000 which Lake County received from Dakota Access Pipeline was earmarked for emergency preparedness and is available for use by the LEPC. A portion of these funds was used to purchase On-The-Go Alerting.

Denholm was asked to research options at an LEPC meeting in March after Madison Police Chief Justin Meyer raised the possibility of getting an alert system which could transmit messages to targeted areas of the county. In April, she presented a spreadsheet which compared three options.

One was more costly than the others and had capabilities which the county did not need. The other two were similar in cost. After viewing demonstrations of the more affordable programs, committee members chose the system which is being implemented.

"It was a little cleaner. It was easier to use," Denholm explained.

Individuals in the county who have cell phones through a carrier that participates in the WEA system may see a test message as early as this week. At an LEPC meeting earlier this month, committee members agreed that testing the alert system in conjunction with the monthly siren test might be beneficial.

According to the FCC website, WEA was established in 2008 through the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act and became operational in 2012. Through the system, authorized public safety officials can send alerts through FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).

However, wireless carriers are not required to participate. Denholm said carriers should provide customers with information regarding this.

"Most major carriers to support this [WEA], but some don't," she noted.

Denholm recommends that individuals check their cell phones to determine whether they are set to receive alerts. This information is found in different locations on different phones. On an iPhone, for example, "Government Alerts" are in Settings under Notifications. Not all phones are that easy.

"I found online how to get into it on my phone," Denholm said.

The FCC indicates that customers do not have to sign up for this service and that alerts are free. They will look like a text message and will be accompanied by a unique signal.

Denholm said the dispatch center will be working with Emergency Management Director Kody Keefer to determine the phrasing of these alerts. The goal is to have the templates translated into Spanish so alerts can be transmitted in both languages, but that service will not be available immediately.

Whether an individual receives the message in English or Spanish will depend upon how their phone is set up.

The age of an individual's phone may also affect the alerts received and the information contained in the alert, according to Denholm. With earlier phones, alerts are received based on identified cell towers. Individuals may receive alerts that are not for their immediate area.

Newer phones have enhanced targeting. Individuals with these phones will receive an alert only if they are in the targeted area or within one-tenth mile of the targeted area.

The age and type of phone will also influence the information available in the alerts received.

"It depends on what version you have, but everyone should get that basic information," Denholm explained.

At an LEPC meeting earlier this month, committee members identified individuals with the authority to issue an alert. Dispatchers will not make this determination.

"We're communications," Denholm said. "We're creating the alerts. We're not the ones out there on the ground."

Rather than identify individuals with the authority to issue an alert, the committee identified positions. These include the emergency management director, Lake County sheriff, Madison police chief and area fire chiefs.

Committee members also determined the kinds of events which would merit an alert. These included severe weather, flooding and hazmat situations. The alert system will not be used for routine notifications such as road closures.

In some situations, alerts will be rebroadcast periodically until the danger has passed, according to Denholm. The individual authorizing the alert will make that determination.

Individuals who are on the road do not have to fear missing alerts. If they are driving into an area affected by the event for which an alert was issued, they will receive the notification when they reach the targeted area, Denholm indicated.

Even if a cell phone is set up to receive public safety alerts, there are occasions when the alerts will not be received.

"If you have your phone on airplane mode, you won't receive alerts. If you don't have cell reception, you won't receive alerts," Denholm said.

Phones that are older than 2012 may not receive alerts, either.

The FCC indicates the WEA system has been used more than 49,000 times since being implemented in 2012. It has been used to issue warnings about dangerous weather, missing children and other critical situations. In April, the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau authorized the use of WEA as a tool during the COVID-19 pandemic.