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Californians urged to keep emergency alerts on; improvements pledged

August 12, 2013|By Melanie Mason
  • A cellphone displays the Amber Alert issued late on Aug. 5 in Los Angeles, which marked the first time officials have notified the public of a statewide Amber Alert through their cellphones.
A cellphone displays the Amber Alert issued late on Aug. 5 in Los Angeles,… (Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty…)

SACRAMENTO--The Amber Alert that came screeching through cellphones statewide last week may have been startling or annoying, but Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) is urging Californians not to disable such alerts.

The Assembly's top Democrat acknowledged Monday morning there should be improvements and better education about the emergency alert system. But the speaker insisted the cellphone alerts are crucial for finding abducted children or warning of imminent danger from natural disasters.

“Californians need to know that by opting out of the system they could be trading a moment’s annoyance for the possibility of real harm to themselves and their families," Pérez said. "In fact, opting out of the Wireless Emergency Alert system could actually be a matter of life and death.” 

The alert system, a federal program that started Jan. 1, automatically sends notification to cellphone users about emergencies such as natural or man-made disasters, or Amber Alerts, which seek the public's help on finding kidnapped children.

An Amber Alert was issued late on the night of Aug. 5 to publicize the kidnapping of San Diego County teen Hannah Anderson, who was safely recovered in Idaho five days later. Assistant Chief LD Maples of the California Highway Patrol said Monday the alert played a "key role" in locating Anderson.

Emergency alerts are sent to phones based on their proximity to the emergency, but this was the first time an Amber Alert notification was sent to cellphones statewide.

It did not make the best first impression. Some cellphone owners complained about the high-pitched shriek that accompanied the message. Others said the alert intruded on their privacy.

Pérez expressed concern that those who disable the alerts on their phone may be missing crucial safety information. He said his office is working with the state Emergency Management Agency to fund an educational campaign for Californians on the importance of receiving emergency messages. He said he's also asking all members of the Assembly to publicize the alert system to their constituents.

Pérez announced plans to convene a special Assembly hearing this fall to examine ways the alert system could work better in the state. He also said he would relay suggestions to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission, the two federal agencies with oversight of the system.

One possibility, Pérez said, would be instituting a "do not disturb" period for audible Amber Alerts, so people are not woken up at night.

"We want to make it a more and more nimble system," Pérez said. "Instead of people immediately disabling [the alerts], want to learn from people’s frustrations."


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