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Billings in negotiations for new wireless alert service to succeed sirens

Posted at 2:11 PM, Oct 02, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-02 18:14:32-04

BILLINGS – Leaders with Yellowstone County and the city of Billings are discussing contracting a wireless alert service for residents, which could be available this winter.

Lt. Kent O’Donnell with the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Emergency Services said Monday there is discussion to bring an I-PAWS, or Integrated Public Alert Warning System, to Billings.

Billings currently uses 24 sirens sprinkled around the county to notify residents of an upcoming emergency.

“We are all aware of the last time it was activated for anything. It was the tornado that ripped through Heights and Metra Park” in 2010, said O’Donnell.

However, the city is quickly outgrowing them, some are three decades old, and some, according to O’Donnell, aren’t operable at times.

“Parts of the city have outgrown those systems, to where some areas may not have the siren coverage,” he said.

The sirens constantly need maintenance, requiring roughly $10,000 in costs a year for repairs, he said.

Now, city and county leaders are negotiating with wireless emergency alert vendors to possibly adopt new wireless technology in Billings that would use cell phone towers and reach residents on their handheld device.

O’Donnell said residents could be notified at a moment’s notice on their phone if a disaster, like a tornado, is about to strike.

This Wednesday, when the nation receives the FEMA alert text, county and city leaders will be watching closely to see how it’s received.

Cell towers will broadcast the WEA test for approximately 30 minutes beginning at 12:18 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time. During this time, WEA compatible cell phones that are switched on, within range of an active cell tower, and whose wireless provider participates in WEA should be capable of receiving the text message below.

“THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”

The WEA system is used to warn the public about dangerous weather, missing children, and other critical situations through alerts on cell phones.

The national test will use the same special tone and vibration as with all WEA messages (i.e. Tornado Warning, AMBER Alert). Users cannot opt out of receiving the WEA test.

O’Donnell said they are looking at vendors right now to come up with a system of our own much like what residents will see this week on a national scale.

“If this all works out, there will be a partnership between Yellowstone County and the city of Billings and we could do everything from grassland fires or a local tornado or an impending snowstorm and severe weather alerts,” he said.

The system could even be used on a smaller scale. For example, if there was an outage on one side of town, the alert could be used to notify residents of that outage but not the whole county, said O’Donnell.

“There are unlimited possibilities,” he said.

Still, the public would have to “opt in,” according to O’Donnell, meaning they would have to turn on notifications on their cellular device in order to get the alerts.

O’Donnell said the conversations are still ongoing on a county/city I-PAWS system.

The nationwide FEMA test was originally planned for Sept. 20, but was postponed until Wednesday due to ongoing response efforts to Hurricane Florence.

Reporting by Andrea Lutz for MTN News