Digital alerts to warn of public dangers
The San Angelo Fire Department has successfully transitioned from warning sirens to digital alerts, which can relate detailed information about a host of threats to every phone within Tom Green County.
The warnings will include specifics of the threat and instructions on how to protect oneself, whether from severe weather, an active shooter, a wildfire or any other imminent danger. The warnings can also alert the public of instances that affect large numbers of citizens, such as a major water main break.
The emergency alerts are similar to Amber alerts received on cell phones. When activated by the SAFD, alerts will be sent to every cell phone and landline within the area designated – whether a neighborhood or the entire county. Calls to land lines will continue until answered, offering detailed information about the threat and instructions. No registration is needed to receive the warnings.
The alerts will also be broadcast on radio stations, television channels and weather radios. The City of San Angelo and the San Angelo Police Department will also post them on their websites and social media.
“These emergency alerts will keep the public safer by providing greater reach, targeted messaging and more detailed information than the outdoor sirens ever could,” Fire Chief Brian Dunn said. “I am convinced of that. If not, I never would have sought to replace the sirens with modern technology.”
Beginning at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 28, Dunn and Tracy Piatt-Fox, the SAPD public information officer, will answer questions about the new system on the City of San Angelo-Public Information Facebook page. That program will be posted on the Facebook page and on the City’s YouTube channel, and will be rebroadcast on SATV, Suddenlink channel 17
The criteria for sending alerts for severe weather remains the same: sustained winds (versus gusts) of at least 58 mph, hail at least 1 inch in diameter (the size of a quarter), and/or a tornado warning. Information about severe weather comes from the National Weather Service or a trained weather spotter in the field. The criteria were established by agreement of the Tom Green County judge and San Angelo’s mayor and city manager, per NOAA recommendations.
The decision to issue an alert remains with the SAFD’s on-duty battalion chief, the police or fire chief, the assistant fire chief for operations, the emergency management coordinator, or the city manager.
SAFD chief: Alerts will enhance public's safety
The move from outdoor warning sirens to digital alerts sent to every cell phone and land line in Tom Green County is meant to do just one thing: keep the public safer. As your fire chief, I wouldn’t have otherwise recommended this.
Effective immediately, whenever there’s a threat to the public’s safety – be it a tornado, severe weather, an active shooter, a chemical spill, a train derailment or some other imminent danger – the San Angelo Fire Department will send a detailed alert to every cell phone in Tom Green County within the area impacted. That alert will give detailed information about the threat and instructions of what to do to protect yourself and your family.
The alert system will also call every land line within the targeted area and will keep doing so until the call is answered. As with the digital alerts, a recorded message will relay what’s happening and what you should do.
Unlike the opt-in Nixle alerts sent by the San Angelo Police Department, you will not need to sign up for this service. The alerts will be sent automatically to every phone within the county … even to visitors who may be passing through.
The alerts will also interrupt broadcasts on radio stations, TV channels and weather radios. The City of San Angelo and the SAPD will also post them on their websites and on their Facebook and Twitter pages.
In a nutshell, the alerts provide greater reach than the outdoor sirens along with detailed information and instructions.
Most of San Angelo’s outdoor warning sirens were installed more than 50 years ago during the Cold War to alert locals of air raids. Aside from the challenge of finding replacement parts – we were advised at one point to check museums – their effectiveness is limited.
Sirens are meant to be heard by people who are outdoors and within earshot. At that point, they are to seek cover and further information about what’s happening. If someone is inside – or if strong winds are limiting the reach of their audible warnings – the sirens are not likely to be heard. They certainly won’t be heard in places such as Wall, Veribest, Carlsbad and Water Valley … because there are no sirens there.
By contrast, the Pew Research Center reports 95 percent of Americans own a cellphone. Among those 65 and older, 80 percent own a cellphone. Among people who earn less than $30,000 a year, 92 percent own a cellphone. Ninety-four percent of rural residents own a cellphone.
Because sirens are powered by electricity, they are useless during power failures. They are also vulnerable to hacking. Dallas learned that in 2017 when a hacker sounded all 156 of its sirens for an hour and a half in the wee hours.
By contrast, our emergency alerts are part of a national system that provides the highest levels of protection. And we know they work because you’ve already received them. This is the same system that sends Amber alerts along with warnings via the Emergency Alert System.
The decision to issue an alert remains with the Fire Department’s on-duty battalion chief, the police or fire chief, the assistant fire chief for operations, the emergency management coordinator, or the city manager. We work closely with the National Weather Service and with other first-responders in San Angelo and Tom Green County when deciding whether to issue an alert.
While safety was the driving factor in the move to digital alerts, the transition will represent a cost savings to taxpayers. Replacing the sirens would have cost $500,000-$750,000 … for a system that provides inadequate coverage and no information. The digital alerts cost $5,500 per year – less than was spent on electric power to the sirens.
This newspaper piece is but one way in which we are seeking to educate people about the new alerts. The City and SAPD’s public information offices are working to spread the message of the new alerts. We will promote this on the robust social media audiences the City and the SAPD have built. We will be appearing on local television and radio. We will give a presentation to the City Council. And we are willing to speak to any civic or professional group that would like to learn more. Please contact me at the info below.
As has every San Angelo firefighter and police officer, I have sworn an oath to protect you, the public. I take that duty seriously. That is why I have pushed toward this greater use of technology that, without question, will provide better information to more people about any life-threatening danger we face.