Linn Co. EMA Working to Fix Text Alerts

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Tuesday afternoon’s severe weather revealed a flaw in the Linn Alert system that sends text or voice messages to those who sign up for alerts. And Linn County Emergency Management is making some changes to insure it doesn’t happen again.

A tree down south of Alburnett. An alert issued by the National Weather Service about this tornado caused a problem with the Linn County Emergency Management alert system.

The system, also known as Wireless Emergency Notification System (WENS), can send out 800 automated phone messages a minute to tell people about severe weather threats issued by the National Weather Service.

But Tuesday’s alert got repeated when tornado maps were reissued and the system mistakenly tried to make 72,000 calls.

Steve O’Konek, director of Linn County Emergency Management, said that number of calls would take about 90 minutes to complete.

His office didn’t know there was a problem until people who had signed up for the system began calling about late or duplicate phone warnings.

Alert Iowa, based in the Des Moines area, actually handles the electronic processes for those sign up for Linn County alerts.

O’Konek says after the EMS office learned about the problem they discovered the system was set up to send voice alerts to way too many phone numbers.

“In this case, we had a setting that sent out to our 911 system so everyone with a phone in the warning area mapped by the National Weather Service got a phone message,” he said.

O’Konek says, by contrast, text and email alerts went out quickly without delay.

Emergency Management plans to change the way people sign up for the alerts so anyone has to opt-in to receive a voice message.

A text message will be the automatic choice.

O’Konek says the idea behind the voice messages was to give those who don’t have access to text messages or have some physical limitation a way to get warnings.

He believes that’s probably about 1,500 people in the county and sending out voice notifications to that number of people should only take about two minutes.