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Berkeley County may make agreement with FEMA to send text alerts for local emergencies

July 26, 2013|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthewu@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Berkeley County residents or anyone traveling in the county may soon be able to receive text-message-style alerts on their cellphones about extreme weather and other emergencies.

The Berkeley County Council is mulling whether the county should enter an agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to use the Internet-based Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS.

Established by a 2006 executive order of President George W. Bush, the warning system is already available for use by the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and several southern West Virginia counties, according to IPAWS engineering branch chief Mark Lucero, who gave a presentation to the council Thursday about how the system works.

IPAWS provides the infrastructure for the president to directly alert and warn the nation of a national emergency, but also allows federal, state, territorial, tribal and local officials to use the system and send mobile alerts and warnings, including AMBER alerts for missing children and National Weather Service warnings in their respective areas.

Other than nearby Loudoun County, Va., no other municipal and county jurisdictions in the four-state area are listed as having completed steps to use the IPAWS system, according to FEMA’s website.

Beckley, W.Va., along with Fayette, Greenbrier, McDowell, Mercer, Monroe, Nicholas, Raleigh, Summers and Wyoming counties already have taken steps to use the program, according to Lucero.

While cellphone users would have the option not to receive the alerts on their devices, Lucero told the council Thursday that residents would not have to sign up for the service, either. Only older model cellphones do not have the capability to receive the alerts,  Lucero said.  

There are possible costs for training, software and public service announcements, but the warning system is free for communities to use, he said.

“The public’s going to want to know why they’re receiving these announcements,” Lucero said of the need to educate the community about the alert system.

“I think the public outreach is more important than anything,” council President Anthony J. “Tony” Petrucci said.

Lucero demonstrated that the sound people would hear their cellphone make upon receiving an emergency alert is similar, if not identical, to the Emergency Alert System sound that is broadcast on radio and television prior to an inclement weather advisory or warning announcement.

Stephen S. Allen, director of the Berkeley County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said he already has taken training on how to use IPAWS, which he described as another tool to help save lives in emergency situations.

Both Sheriff Kenneth Lemaster and 911/Central Dispatch Director Mary Kackley told the council that they were not opposed to the county’s use of the system, and it likely would be beneficial to the community.

In addition to cellphone alerts, Lucero said they are working to relay alerts via social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter.

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