Santa Clara County emergency alert test had glitches but deemed 'success'

If you live in a portion of Santa Clara County, you may have received an emergency alert message on your cell phone or computer. That’s because county fire officials conducted a test of its emergency alert system. County fire officials want to see how well their alert system, established nine years ago, will function if there were an actual emergency.

“We’re happy we tested the system today. There are some things we can improve in the process. But overall I would say the test is a success,” said Capt. Bill Murphy of the Santa Clara County Fire Dept.

He ordered the button pushed at 10:11 a.m. Friday, and 13 seconds later, multiple test phones lit up with messages. It’s the first time Santa Clara County has conducted a live test of its emergency alert system. The targeted alert message was sent to via cell towers to phones and computers in a 128 square mile area, from roughly Los Gatos to Los Altos Hills.

“We know we can get a message out fast. What we’re trying to test today is how accurate we can be using the full range of technology we have. So that we’re not over alerting if we don’t have to…We want to prevent overlap so that so don’t create confusion with the public.”

Experts say similar systems were used during the North Bay fires to evacuate residents in the path of danger. But it can also be used in cases of flooding, or after an earthquake to help get victims to emergency services.

“People getting a timely evacuation notice is critically important to their being able to leave the area safely,” said San Jose State University political science professor Frannie Edwards. She headed San Jose’s Office of Emergency Services for nine years, before teaching at the university.

Two observers from the California Office of Emergency Services were on hand to monitor the test. Shelly McMahon says since March, there have been similar tests in San Diego, Oakland, and now Santa Clara County.

“I wanna make sure that the wireless alerts are coming in on the different carriers. So we’re testing cell phone speeds in the area, and we’re noting when the test came in,” said McMahon.

AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint, and the First Net system for first responders all carried the test. Some Sprint and Verizon test phones did not get the alert message when it was sent.

“I think anytime we use technology, we cannot assume everything will go perfectly,” said Edwards.

In addition to some phones not getting the signal, some residents outside the target area received the alerts. Officials are working to correct those glitches when they submit an after-action report next week. They also say this is a good time to remind everyone to have an emergency kit and escape plan before it’s needed.