The Georgia Emergency Management Agency had — but did not use — a system to send weather and traffic alerts directly to people’s cell phones during the crippling Jan. 28 snowstorm, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.
Georgia received federal approval to use the technology, which resembles the “Amber alert” system for missing children, in 2012. It puts a big, type message on the phone’s home screen, accompanied by a distinctive sound and a vibration. The alert goes to cell phones within a given geographic area automatically, without the users having signed up for the service.
In theory, alerts might have urged people to stay at home on the day of the storm, not to hit the roads as gridlock developed, and provided shelter and safety information through the night.
“We had the system. It had never been tested, configured or used for weather and traffic alerts,” said GEMA spokesman Ken Davis.
That changed abruptly in the wake of last month’s storm. On Monday, the governor’s office announced that the system will be deployed in future weather emergencies.
“The governor has determined that a weather-related crisis rises to that level of urgency, so that’s why we’re expanding the use of this system,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson told the AJC in an email.
The national system, known by the acronym IPAWS, is just one of many ways technology can revolutionize how officials, companies and individuals share information in times of crisis. In the era of cell phones (especially smartphones), mobile apps, Twitter and Facebook, disaster managers can get detailed, localized, up-to-the-minute information to people who are in harm’s way. No more dependence on tornado sirens or generalized radio and TV alerts.
Emerging technologies “can actually keep you from getting into a bad situation, and also help you get out of one quickly,” said Laura Myers, a senior researcher for the Center for Advanced Public Safety at the University of Alabama.