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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County to pause federal emergency alerts as location glitches persist

In this Feb. 17, 2016, file photo an iPhone is seen in Washington. Local emergency responders have made more frequent use of a federal system allowing cellphone alerts based on location, but some glitches in recent weeks have them rethinking their strategy.   (Carolyn Kaster)

It’s a common occurrence over the past few months: Phones suddenly light up and a siren blares, indicating there’s some kind of emergency nearby.

But the problem is, the emergency isn’t necessarily nearby.

First responders in Spokane County have made increased requests to use the Spokane County Emergency Management alert systems, but glitches in the federal system that allows alerts to be geographically targeted to people’s cellphones have caused confusion. The department plans to limit use of the system until it can research and solve the problems and instead rely on a sign-up system called ALERT Spokane.

In 2016, Spokane County Emergency Management purchased CodeRED, a system that allows them to send emergency alerts, said Simone Ramel-McKay, program specialist at the department. After months of training and onboarding, the system began being used in early 2017.

The CodeRED system, locally called ALERT Spokane, allows people to sign up to get text messages, phone calls or emails when there is an emergency near the address they register. It also can call landlines or phone numbers in the white pages without a sign-up. The alerts could be from police notifying them to law enforcement activity in the area or fire agencies giving evacuation notices.

The ALERT Spokane system is tied to the address an individual registers, so if they’re not at home they will still get an alert. People can also download the CodeRED app, which will alert them based on where their phone is located at the time of the emergency.

Emergency management used CodeRED last year to send evacuation alerts for fires in the Cheney area, Ramel-McKay said.

“We had a lot of people saying they didn’t receive an alert,” Ramel-McKay said. “So I explained to the fire district chiefs and deputy chiefs that quite honestly, I’m not seeing enough registrations in Cheney for as many fires as you all have. We’re trying to push out education and PSAs, but people aren’t registering.”

That’s when discussions began about using the federal Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS), which geolocates people’s cellphones and sends them pop-up alerts, Ramel-McKay said.

Since then, Ramel-McKay has done outreach to police and fire departments who have started using both IPAWS and the CodeRED systems more in recent months.

People don’t have to register for IPAWS alerts, they just show up on phones similar to an Amber Alert, although the systems are run differently.

Both the Spokane Police Department and Spokane County Sheriff’s Office have requested alerts more frequently in recent months, saying the alerts help keep both citizens and officers safe.

“It has been very successful in finding endangered adults, missing children, things like that,” said Deputy Mark Gregory, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office.

When looking for a suspect or missing person, it’s a big difference having citizens in the area be on the lookout in comparison to the handful of officers who would be conducting the search otherwise, he said.

“There’s a huge difference in numbers there,” he said.

Fire evacuation alerts start with the evacuation level, then the request to the public, then the agency issuing the alert, all often in 90 characters or fewer, Ramel-McKay said. For public safety alerts, the agency issuing the alert comes first, then the location followed by the request, for example, to avoid the area or call 911 if they spot a missing person.

However, this information isn’t always included adequately, because sometimes requesting agencies don’t provide enough information or things get missed in the rush to send out the alert, Ramel-McKay said.

“Errors may have been made or insufficient information may have been given,” Ramel-McKay said.

If the system worked perfectly, the alerts would be targeted to a very small area; however, on Monday when an IPAWS alert was sent supposedly to citizens in Airway Heights when a suspected shooter was on the loose, the alert strayed from its targeted area.

“What we didn’t realize, really until this weekend, is that sometimes they don’t stick to their targeted areas,” Ramel-McKay said. “At one time we knew there were some challenges with geotargeting, but now we thought it had improved, which is why we were using it more now.”

With so many kinks in the system, Ramel-McKay and emergency management have decided for most alerts to stop using IPAWS until the issues can be sorted out. IPAWS will still be used for Level 3, or “go now,” fire evacuations.

Otherwise, the department will stick to using the CodeRED system, which only sends alerts to people who have signed up.