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Geo-located emergency alerts tested in Jeffco

Jefferson County was one of 42 jurisdictions across the country that received special permission to test the Wireless Emergency Alerts system.

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — People living in Jefferson County's scenic King's Valley might not have known it on Tuesday afternoon, but they were about to participate in a historic test of the most powerful emergency alert tool available to local emergency managers. 

Across the country, Jefferson County and 41 other jurisdictions tested FEMA's Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system with specific pre-defined geographic coordinates. 

The cell tower-based system sends AMBER alert-style notifications to cell phones. It was the technology not available to Boulder County during the deadly Marshall Fire — and Tuesday's test exposed further weaknesses. 

For all its high-tech capabilities, emergency managers had to station volunteers at intersections throughout the alert area to see if the system worked. Cell phone companies do not currently tell emergency managers how many people actually received the alert — or if people outside the designated area were accidentally notified. The FCC is considering forcing them to do so. 

Jefferson County's Emergency Management director called the WEA technology "amazing" and said the ability to locate alerts to specific areas helps first responders reach the people most at risk.

"When I was young in my career, this idea seemed like shooting for the stars and to be today testing it at such a finite location at a mile and a half square box is really fulfilling," Hal Grieb said. 

People who received Tuesday's alert were asked to fill out a survey for the FCC to evaluate how well the test went. The volunteers sent out by Jefferson County officials reported it worked as expected, said JeffComm Deputy Director Mike Brewer. 

"I didn’t receive the alert, but that’s a good thing because I’m half a mile outside that geo-identified area," Brewer said. He said the FCC and FEMA will have to analyze the data from the test to issue final recommendations. 

Tuesday was Brewer's first time sending a WEA notification, but it may not be his last -- and he said preparation for fires and floods is key — from officials and citizens alike. 

"We have to prepare now for these types of events that we just didn’t have to at least at the same scale," he said.

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