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Emergency Communication Officials Describe Warning Systems

by on January 27, 2013 12:00 PM

In the crux of winter storms, many people find themselves looking to their cell phones for breaking information on dangerous weather conditions. However, there are a variety of other alerts residents can access, both on Penn State’s campus and throughout the county. Area emergency communication officials explain these systems and how to sign up.

Brian Bittner, director of emergency management at Penn State, said Penn State text alerts are managed by the public information office. The university coordinates with the office on when to send out alerts based on current trends and other information.

“We can send out pretty much anything,” Bittner said.

Called PSUTXT, the alerts contain information on campus closures, areas to avoid, weather conditions and other notices of importance.

Bittner estimates the PSUTXT system, which has been around since about 2006, sends out about 10 alerts a year at University Park. The alerts are also used at other Penn State Commonwealth campuses, and subscribers can sign up to receive alerts for any and all campuses.

“It’s an open system,” Bittner said, and anybody can receive these alerts.

Subscribers typically are Penn State faculty, staff and students, as well as parents of Penn State students, area business owners and members of the media, he said. Some 150,000 people currently use PSUTXT, he said.

A variety of technological changes to the system are underway, Bittner said, which should be ready by March or April. Research is being conducted to find out what might be added to the system in order to enhance it, he said.

One of these updates includes a better streamline, he said, as well as other functions.

These alerts are important, Bittner said, because they act as a way to alert the mass.

“(We are) one layer in a multi-layer process of alerting people,” he said.

In Centre County, a system called CodeRed is used to alert large numbers of residents.

Run through the Department of 9-1-1/Emergency Communications, CodeRed is a mass notification system that sends emergency alerts through phone, texting or email.

Daniel Tancibok, director of the Centre County Office of Emergency Communications, said CodeRed alerts are sent out to a certain region in the county depending on where an event is taking place.

“(It’s) whatever area we define within the county,” he said.

If an alert needs to go out, Tancibok’s office looks at a map and circles the specific area that would receive a notification, he said. For example, in the case of a missing person, a quarter-mile around where the person is missing would be circled, and that region within the circle would receive an alert.

Wire line phones automatically receive these alerts, he said, but wireless phone users have the opportunity to subscribe through the website.

The type of alerts CodeRed sends out, by request of emergency responders, may be anything from a missing child to information on hazardous materials, Tancibok said.

“We restrict it to emergencies,” Tancibok said. “These are true emergencies.”

While it’s unknown how many wireless subscribers there are in Centre County, Tancibok said about 70 percent of 911 calls come from wireless phones.

Tancibok’s biggest piece of advice for residents who receive an emergency alert is to listen to the message in its entirety, and not to call 911 unless they have information that is being asked for.

“We’re very careful about how we do the message,” Tancibok said, explaining that the alerts are kept as brief as possible while still providing as much information as necessary.

On a state level, the Amber Alert Plan is a method of alerting citizens of Pennsylvania when a child has been abducted, according to Pennsylvania State Police. The program was developed for Pennsylvania by the Pennsylvania State Police and named after 9 year old Amber Hagerman who was abducted while playing near her home in Texas and subsequently murdered in 1996, according to the PSP website.

The Amber Alert Plan uses the Emergency Alert System (EAS), via the code CAE — Child Abduction Emergency, to warn citizens by radio and television when a child abduction has occurred. The emergency alert contains information regarding the victim, the suspect and if applicable, the suspect’s vehicle information. This allows the citizens and the media to assist police by getting the message out immediately and reporting sightings of the child, perpetrator, or any other associated information. If a person does have information concerning an abduction they should report that information immediately to police by calling 911. The ultimate goal is to save the life of a child, the website states.

In order for the Pennsylvania Amber Alert Plan to be activated, law enforcement must be satisfied the following criteria have been met: The abducted child must be under 18 years of age and the abducted child is believed to be in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury. Additional factors are considered in the decision making process as to whether or not to activate the PA Amber Alert Plan. These factors include, but are not limited to: availability of descriptive information which could assist in the recovery of the child, time elapsed since the child was last seen, and reliability of witnesses, according to the website.

The plan is limited to "abducted" children, and, therefore, excludes children believed to be runaways or throwaways from home. After a police department initiates an investigation of an abducted child and all of the above criteria have been met, State Police will analyze the reported information. If there is enough information available to believe that an activation will assist in the recovery of the child, the Amber Alert Plan will be put into effect. Timing is critical in a child abduction case. We encourage investigators to report a case immediately in order to get information out to the public so the child can be found unharmed. This plan can be activated anywhere in the Commonwealth. The plan can also be utilized for interstate abductions through a cooperative effort with other states across the nation, the website states.

The Pennsylvania State Police coordinates Amber Alert efforts with the help of stakeholders from PEMA, PENNDOT, PA Turnpike, PA Association of Broadcasters, PA Newspaper Association, PA Broadband Cable Association, PA Chiefs of Police Association, Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Commission, PA Lottery Commission and the Outdoor Advertising Association of PA, according to the website.

For more information about Amber Alerts visit www.amber.state.pa.us. For more information, or to subscribe to PSUTXT, visit www.live.psu.edu/psutxt. For more information, or to subscribe to CodeRed, visit http://www.co.centre.pa.us/codered.



Staff Writer at The Centre County Gazette
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