Many Alaskans wondering why they're left out of mobile emergency alerts

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - As emergency tsunami alert warnings were sent out by Anchorage’s office of emergency management, Alaska news rooms and others Monday night, many Alaskans received an alert through their phone’s “Emergency Alert” function – but many other Alaskans were left wondering how and why they were left out.

The alerts were later canceled after a destructive wave failed to build.

It was just more than a week after Hawaiians, and a number of Alaskans vacationing in the islands, were alerted by that same function to a ballistic missile threat, which turned out to be sent in error.

Back in Alaska on Tuesday, many people who use GCI for their mobile phone service were left wondering why they did not receive an Emergency Alert for Monday night’s tsunami warning. GCI says it all boils down to which mobile carriers are currently required to participate in the Wireless Emergency Alert network, and how complicated the system is to put in place.

The Wireless Emergency Alert system, which allows wireless phones and other enabled mobile devices to receive geographically-targeted alert messages, is required of the largest mobile phone carriers across the country, but GCI and other small carriers have a timeline waiver, says Heather Handyside, the senior director of corporate communications for the company.

“This is a system that the Federal Communications Commission requires of carriers and providers across the nation, but it’s a very labor intensive and complicated process,” Handyside said Tuesday afternoon.

GCI and other small carriers have until May of 2019 to comply with the requirement by the Federal Communications Commission to participate, Handyside said. The Commission says all non-participating carriers must notify their customers that they are not part of the network.

“We’ve been working on it about five or six months, and we’re close to the end of the process,” Handyside said of GCI’s work to comply with the technical and operational requirements. She said the company hopes to be part of the Wireless Emergency Alert Network in the next few months.

In the meantime, GCI has an app, called GCI Alerts, that customers can install, which would sign them up for those alerts.

Handyside says the company periodically sends e-mails and text messages to customers about the app’s availability, and with this past week’s events, would likely be sending another one.

“Repetition is the best way to let people know,” Handyside said. “Also when these kind of incidents happen it’s a great opportunity to educate folks. We’ll be sending out another customer e-mail today to remind people to download the app,” Handyside said.

Once the app is downloaded, there are settings as to how the alerts appear and sound, and which alerts you will receive.

The FCC says you should ask your wireless carrier if it is part of the Wireless Emergency Alert network.

Jeremy Zidek, with the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency management, says WEAN systems are sent out through a similar process to those through the Emergency Alert System.

Meanwhile, the City and Borough of Juneau says while today’s earthquake presented an offshore tsunami, which gave time to give an alert, an inshore landslide-generated tsunami would have little to no warning. “If you’re located in this Inshore Landslide Tsunami Zone and an earthquake occurs that is longer than 20 seconds, or if it is strong enough to knock you down, immediately seek higher ground,” wrote City and Borough of Juneau Emergency Programs Manager Tom Mattice.

He said in that situation, if nothing happens within 30 minutes, you can assume it’s a non-tsunami event.

After Hawaii’s false missile alert, Michael Sutton, Alaska’s Director of the State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said the state would most likely use the Emergency Alert System in that unlikely event.

The Emergency Alert System is what’s currently used for National Weather Service alerts or Amber Alerts.

Sutton said that the way Alaska’s system is configured has many more safeguards than Hawaii’s appeared to in order to prevent an erroneous alert message.

“Our system is set up and configured differently than the state of Hawaii. Here we have to physically put in a message, type in the message, and go through a series of screen selections, and then finally before we push the message, the operator has to type in ‘yes,’ the word y-e-s, and then hit enter, before it would go out,” Sutton explained.

“Being in the emergency management world, that was a very unfortunate accident, that has some silver linings in a way. It gives all of us in emergency management, and in the public, an opportunity to stand back and say, ‘What could we be doing - if this were to happen, what are my plans? Am I prepared to do this?’ ” Sutton said.

Tuesday, Zidek said though the tsunami wave turned out not to be dangerous, “we did see that communities received the message successfully, and that they were able to use their plans that have been developed to evacuate to higher ground.”



 
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