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Emergency cell phone alert testing needs more work


By Jay Gamel

“The operation was not a success, but the patient lived.” That’s how Sam Wallis described the results of a Dec. 3 test of the SoCoAlert cell phone notification system that is supposed to alert residents in specific areas threatened by fires, floods, and other disasters.

While the Sheriff ’s Nixle alert system and the NOAA weather emergency warning system deployed in Sonoma County for the 2020 fires worked, many residents throughout the county said they did not get any alerts from the SoCoAlert system.

Wallis is trying to fix that. He manages the Community Alert and Warning program for the Sonoma County Department of Emergency Management.

Cell phone and other wireless communication systems are owned and operated by private corporations like AT& T and Verizon, and not subject to the same degree of regulation as utilities. There is no single set of Federal Communication Commission (FCC) rules clarifying what must be provided for emergency services. AT& T and Verizon have different emergency alert systems. And while the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (to which both belong) is working on version 3.0 of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) software used by emergency agencies throughout the U.S., it is not yet available to all users and certainly is not a required standard for anyone.

The FCC itself imposed a more complicated set of rules regarding wireless alert tests, ostensibly to prevent consumer burnout from too much testing.

Miscommunication and timing rendered last December’s test all but useless, Wallis said, with too few people having set up their phones to receive the test for any meaningful information to be learned. Even so, in the few instances where phones were properly set up, the system worked, Wallis said.

Another test will be run on March 4 at noon, with extensive public outreach to achieve better results.

Cell phone users must enable their phones to accept emergency tests. Apple iPhone users need to dial a complex code Emergency testing – from page 1

with their iPhone to enable receipt of test signals; Android users have to make a specific choice in their phone’s settings.

These settings apply to test signals, not real emergency alerts. It is possible to turn off your cell phone’s default settings, so you might want to check them if you are enabling the tests. “A lot of people never got the code,” Willis said. “And even when they did, people said they still didn’t get the alert.” A few people outside the alert areas received them, even without signing up. “We are working on a web page, a new video, and background to be live in the next week or so,” he said.

The good news is that people have to sign up only once to continue receiving emergency tests, which will be followed by a survey request. Both steps will be invaluable to getting the system working

right. “The system continues to be refined, and we continue to do testing and report errors and anomalies to our friends at the FCC,” Willis said.

Apple iPhone users need to dial an unusual phone number, including the symbols: *5005*25371# *. The result will be an on-screen message saying, “Test alerts enabled.” If you want to opt out of the test alert system, dial: *5005*25371# *. It is almost exactly the same number, with a one-digit difference at the end and a different message: “Test alerts disabled.” Android users need only go to their settings and search for “emergency alerts.” Make sure the switches are toggled to the “on” position.