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MEMA: Glitch in new wireless alert service causes confusion, fright

PEARL — The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency utilized the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) messaging tool for the first time during the winter storm that affected the state this week.

The first messages were sent Tuesday night for counties in the Mississippi Delta that experienced iced roads and bridges where emergency-only travel was advised.

The second set of messages were sent Wednesday to counties along the I-20 corridor during the shut-down of the Mississippi River Bridge in Vicksburg for more than 13 hours due to a multiple 18-wheeler accident involving hazardous materials.

There was an initial problem with the messages sent Tuesday night as the detailed text did not appear because of a glitch in the federal system used to distribute the messaging. As a result, the message read “Civil Emergency – Prepare for action” which, because of the glitch, frightened many citizens that received the message. That problem was fixed and the Wednesday messages appeared correctly.

“This was the first time MEMA used the alerts, and I know there was some confusion in the public,” said MEMA director Robert Latham. “There was no way to test the system before its use, so it was a learning experience for both us and the cell phone companies. We are confident the problems are corrected and in the future we will only use these alerts when the safety of our citizens is threatened. I am convinced this alerting system can save lives, as long as citizens do not disable it on their phones.”

WEA messages are sent to smartphones in specific areas where a severe incident is occurring. The messages are relayed to all cellphone towers in the incident area. Each phone will only receive the message once.  It is a free service so users don’t have to sign-up for anything. The only requirement is you have a device capable of receiving the alerts and have the alerts turned on.  Participation by cell phone companies is voluntary and customers should check with their provider to see which devices are able to receive WEA messages.

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