FEMA plans weather alert service

Published 8:00 pm Wednesday, May 16, 2012

     An emergency alert program designed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will soon be active nationwide, local Civil Defense Director Clifford Galey told Brookhaven aldermen Tuesday night.

     FEMA’s Wireless Emergency Alert system will send text-message like alerts to cell phone users about local weather emergencies.

     A person will receive alerts on their phone localized to their current location. Someone in one county may receive completely different warning messages from a person in a neighboring county.

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     The program does not require local counties or municipalities to pay anything. The customers of participating wireless carriers will automatically receive the messages unless they choose to opt out.

     “I think it’s going to be a great thing for us to be able to receive these messages,” Galey said.

     Last year, aldermen considered participating in a phone-based alert system that would have cost the city. Among the programs aldermen considered was CodeRed, which was estimated to bring a $10,000 price tag for the city.

     Aldermen have expressed relief they didn’t decide to use one of those programs.

     “This is one of those cases where procrastination may give us a better system,” said Ward Six Alderman David Phillips previous to last night’s meeting.

     The FEMA system does have several weaknesses that commercial systems don’t have.

     The FEMA program can only contact cell phone users, not landlines. The program is also limited by what wireless carriers have chosen to participate in the program, as the program uses the cell towers of participating carriers to alert users within the area of weather alerts.

     Some older cell phones also can’t receive the FEMA alerts, but Galey said all major wireless carriers have chosen to participate. He specifically mentioned that C-Spire, which is used by a number of area customers, is a part of program.

     The FEMA system is an opt-out program, meaning customers will automatically get the alerts unless they choose not to. In addition to weather alerts, the system will also send AMBER Alerts and Presidential Alerts during national emergencies.

     FEMA warning messages will not count against cell phone users’ text or data plans.

     Galey said FEMA hopes to start sometime in June.

     “Tentatively, they expect to have it in place by the 1st of June,” Galey said.

     However, Galey warned aldermen another storm warning device remains up in the air.

     Galey has applied for a grant that would pay 75 percent of the cost to put five storm alert sirens in the city. Though Galey originally told aldermen late in 2011 he hoped to have final approval of the grant by early this year, the grant has still not been approved or rejected.

     “I’m just waiting on FEMA and their red tape,” Galey said. “I call about once a week trying to hurry them up, but it hasn’t helped so far.”

     Last year, the board voted to allocate $30,000 to buy a siren but later decided to keep that money in reserve and use it toward the city’s match if the FEMA grant comes through.

     Last night, aldermen also granted Ryan Holmes with Dungan Engineering the authority to advertise for bids for grant-funded hangar construction at the Brookhaven Municipal Airport.

     Paving funds also were briefly discussed as a topic of conversation. Mayor Les Bumgarner proposed splitting the city’s paving budget seven ways, with each alderman receiving an equal share. Bumgarner would not receive any funds to allocate. Last year, splitting the funds eight ways proved extremely contentious.

     No aldermen voiced objections to Bumgarner’s proposed seven-way split.