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Time to Evacuate? Time to Shelter?

Here’s How You’ll Know.

Posted August 3, 2015
When disaster strikes and it’s time to evacuate, seconds count. The sooner you know what’s going on, the better your chances of survival. Experts in the Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM) division know this, and they support communication upgrades that save lives.
One of the newest tools in the public safety arsenal is a locally issued, wireless emergency alert (WEA) that will go to newer-model cell phones. It’s going to change the way you find out when, where, how and why evacuation — or some other emergency action — becomes necessary.
example of a wireless emergency alert message
​Photo: Example of a wireless emergency alert message.
These alerts are just one component of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) coordinated by Minnesota’s Statewide Emergency Communications Board. The IPAWS committee chair is Bloomington Fire Chief Ulie Seal, under whose leadership members from HSEM and the Emergency Communications Networks division, along with partners from county governments, the media, and the phone and cable companies, have updated our emergency-alert plan.
IPAWS is actually a national system created to provide the president of the United States the ability to alert and warn the whole nation. It’s the one used by the National Weather Service to issue warnings about tornadoes and severe-weather events. The state of Minnesota uses it for AMBER alerts; in February 2013 the first AMBER alert on the WEA system worked to quickly locate an infant kidnapped in Minneapolis. In the unlikely event of an incident at one of our two nuclear generating plants, a WEA would provide people with information on how to protect themselves.
Counties, larger cities and tribal nations may also become authorized users by meeting requirements and entering an agreement with FEMA. Authorized users can issue warnings in several categories:
• Civil Danger Warning, which may include instructions to avoid an area
• Evacuation Immediate
• Shelter in Place Warning
• Civil Emergency Message
A WEA must be used only to warn the public of an event that is urgent, severe and certain. Examples include a hazardous materials spill, a train derailment and fire, or a toxic-chemical spill.
A WEA will make your phone vibrate and send a tone — something like the one you hear on TV when there’s an emergency alert for weather conditions. It will be very important, should your phone “go off,” to pay attention and follow instructions. These warnings won’t go out unless it’s time for you to do something, so you’ll need to act on the advice you receive.
Instructions may be to evacuate the area, in which case there will be directions to take. (You’ll want to drive away from fumes following a chemical spill, for instance…not toward them.) You might be told to shelter in place, which means go inside, close the windows and doors, shut off the air conditioner, and follow other safety procedures. There might be something called a Civil Danger Warning, or a Civil Emergency Message. You might be told to boil your water before using it, or to avoid a certain, dangerous area in your town or county.
To date, half of Minnesota’s 87 counties are approved, or in the process of being approved, as local alerting points. These jurisdictions upgraded their local mass-notification systems with IPAWS software, and operators have been trained. The IPAWS committee augments their training with sessions at statewide conferences and regional meetings, and fact sheets distributed at oil-transportation safety classes.
A best-practices guide is being written, and a workshop developed to help locals learn to use this new tool and develop effective safety messages. Your fire chiefs, emergency managers and other community leaders may be attending the workshops.
This map shows which counties and cities are authorized to issue local wireless emergency alerts. Check out your county and pay attention, because under the worst circumstances, these alerts will save lives — and one of them may as well be yours.