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Monterey Park emergency alert: False alarm reveals flaw in system

Many AT&T customers received this message Wednesday from Monterey Park.
Many AT&T customers received this message Wednesday from Monterey Park.

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A Monterey Park city official apologized Thursday for sounding alarms on smart phones throughout L.A. County after its fire department accidentally triggered an emergency message system.

"I know that one was sent in error and I'm sure a lot of people out there were very frustrated with it, and we apologize," said Fire Department Battalion Chief Mark Khail. "It's a new system, there are some glitches."

Despite the regrets, no one at the city offices, nor the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was prepared to explain exactly what caused the misfired test message Wednesday afternoon.

RELATEDTest alert from Monterey Park accidentally sent to all of LA County

That alert system is part of IPAWS. That's short for Integrated Public Alert & Warning System Authority, a new and growing national network built and funded by FEMA that's coming to more cities in Southern California.
Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura Counties are part of the system. Each sender can define the geographical reach of an alert within their jurisdiction. Monterey Park would not say why its test message extended so far outside its city limits. Participants can send alerts on their own without clearance from any other agency.
Several other cities in Southern California are seeking access to the system.  Anaheim, Beverly Hills, Culver City, Rancho Cucamonga, and Santa Monica are on FEMA's list of jurisdictions that want the ability to send alerts to phones.

They'll have to be careful not to erode public confidence by sending mistaken or irrelevant messages.
"It's significant risk that, if misused, people would just either unsubscribe or tune it out and not pay attention," said Michael Stajura, a UCLA public health doctoral student who studies how people act in disasters.
The advantage of the IPAWS system is that the alert comes to your device automatically — you don't have to download an app, go to a website or have the radio or TV turned on.
But people who don't want the alerts going off in the middle of the night or while driving can disable them by adjusting the settings on smart phones.
"We just truly hope that people don't disconnect them because a local jurisdiction has made a mistake," said Lilly Wyatt of the governor's Office of Emergency Services, which coordinates cities' participation in the alert system. "This IPAWS was created to save lives and keep people safe."

Wyatt said more than 100 phone carriers are set up to send the wireless alerts.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency built the system and pays the cost of adding government participants.