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Nation's wireless emergency alert system to be updated following - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

Nation's wireless emergency alert system to be updated following Thomas Fire, Montecito mudslides

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The Thomas Fire and Montecito's mudslides revealed how important emergency alerts are for residents facing disasters. Now improvements are being made to the nation's wireless emergency alert system.

The changes being proposed will give those affected a better idea of the extent of the emergency, be sent in additional languages, and help narrow down who receives the alert.

The Central Coast saw its fair share of destruction first with the Thomas Fire - largest in recorded state history - and shortly after with the deadly Montecito mudslides.

During a disaster, Santa Barbara County relies on emergency alert systems to protect and inform the public. Residents can sign up for the County's Aware & Prepare alert system and there's also the federal Wireless Emergency Alert System, known as WEA.

"It is the modern day siren system and we need to be successful," said Robert Lewin, director of the county's Office of Emergency Management.

According to Lewin, the WEA System has had some issues. Days prior to the deadly mudslides, he wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission expressing his concerns.

"Telling them that the system has many problems and we were very concerned about its failure," Lewin added.

The morning of the mudslides, the WEA System failed at one point and, in some cases, caused confusion for residents.

The alerts are designed to target a geographic area but actually notified other phones nearby in areas that may not be directly impacted.

"Sometimes the messaging isn't clear, sometimes it sends out a message so broadly that it's confusing to people in other areas and then they call 911 trying to figure out what's going on and it inundates our 911 system," Lewin explained.

The alert message is also limited to just 90 characters and can only be sent in English.

Rep. Salud Carbajal wrote a letter to the FCC requesting the agency consider improvements. The FCC said changes are coming, allowing longer alert messages and making them available in Spanish.

"If you have more information, you can make a better decision on whether to get out or not," said Janice Wilder, a Santa Barbara resident.

The commission will also enhance the geographic targeting capability. These changes won't be available until 2019.

"It does take some time. I hope they hurry it up but I'd rather it be done well and done correctly," said Ruby Shelton, a Montecito resident.

In the meantime, while the changes are being made, locals are asked to sign up for the county's Aware and Prepare Alert System.

Here is a statement from Congressman Salud Carbajal in response to the Emergency Alerts System changes from the FCC:

Clarity during a crisis is essential to protecting lives and informing the public. I am grateful that the FCC listened to the concerns of local governments employing these systems, and made these potentially life-saving changes...

You can also search for KSBY's news and weather apps in your app store to get breaking news alerts sent directly to your cell phone.

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