Shelby County unveils countywide text alert system

Published: Dec. 20, 2022 at 6:58 PM CST

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Shelby County Emergency Management and Homeland Security unveiled a countywide text alert system Tuesday morning, one that leaders feel can increase residents’ safety in times of crisis.

The county can now send you a text message if you’re in harm’s way.

“Notices like ‘shelter in place’, notices like ‘dangerous person’, notices like ‘all clear’ have the potential to save lives,” said Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris.

The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) is a product of The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that was launched in 2006.

Director of Shelby County Emergency Management Brenda Jones said after the shooting rampage in September that put all of Shelby County on lockdown, leaders began conversations on an alert system that could be implemented to bring information quickly to county residents during extreme situations.

Jones said FEMA approached Shelby County with the opportunity to choose IPAWS, and that it was exactly what the county was looking for.

IPAWS is used only if there’s a major emergency, major disaster or a terror attack.

Anyone in Shelby County can receive an emergency text message on their phone, similar to an Amber Alert.

“This system would send a signal to the cell towers in the affected area or the entire area of Shelby County,” Jones said. “Therefore, it does not matter what your area code is. If you are in the affected area, you will receive a notification.”

Jones said other Tennessee counties using FEMA’s IPAWS include Dyer, Fayette, Knox and Hamilton.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said the city’s emergency text alert system - also through FEMA’s IPAWS - is still in development.

“The state has one, too,” Strickland said. “So, I mean, every level of government can have their own alert system. The city will use it for city emergencies, such as when that man was driving around Memphis shooting people. We put it out on the media and social media, but it would be better if we could directly alert people on their phones.”

The way it works is Shelby County will contact FEMA in Washington D.C. with information on a major disaster that they feel merits an alert.

FEMA will then confirm the threat and send out the IPAWS message.

“IPAWS has the ability to zoom in on geographic locations. If there is an incident happening in Arlington, we have the capability to notify just the citizens where the cell towers are pinging in Arlington,” Jones said. “However, if it’s going to affect the entire county, then we also have the ability to notify the entire county.”

The message is limited to 360 characters and will update residents on the situation until the ‘all clear’ notice is given.

“These notices should be rare and we’re hopeful that they will be extremely rare,” Mayor Harris said.

Mayor Strickland said the City of Memphis emergency text alert system is still at least 30 days away from launching.

A city spokesperson told Action News 5 the City of Memphis must get certification from the State of Tennessee before its text alert system gets the green light.

“It’s just like multiple TV stations can do, multiple weather alerts and so forth. So, I don’t see any conflict,” said Mayor Strickland.

More than 400,000 city residents received a test text message on Nov. 9.

But the Shelby County system is up and running right now.

Residents who don’t want to receive the IPAWS messages can opt out of the message.

On iPhone, you can go to your settings, and under ‘Government Alerts’ in the Notifications section, you can disable AMBER alerts, test alerts, and public safety alerts.

You can also disable the sound that comes with the alerts.

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