Smartphone users in Northwest Rochester on Wednesday afternoon likely received an alert about an accident on Valleyhigh Drive that urged them to stay away from the area. It was the first time the City of Rochester used its updated alert system.
The city's Emergency Management Director Ken Jones gives five things to know about the alert and the system behind it.
1. The system is not new
The City of Rochester has had an emergency alert system for more than decade. In 2011, the city bought the State of New York's alerting system and rebranded it Rochester Alert.
A year after the system was put in place, the city received permission to send alerts through the presidential alert safety system. The alerts were limited to life-threatening emergencies.
Jones said the system may have been used once for a tornado warning, but otherwise dormant.
2. Update in 2020 allows for further use
Late last fall, the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) was upgraded and allowed the city to send out alerts to select specific geographic areas.
"In the past, it was all or nothing. We could send it to every cellphone in the county, plus all the TV and radio stations or we could send it just text messages to the whole county or nothing at all because we couldn't get it down to a local area," Jones said.
Before that could happen, though, the city needed to update the altering software and all the area cellphone providers needed to update their equipment. Jones said all that happened in November or December 2020.
The upgrade also expanded the reasons why a city could send out alerts -- no longer was it reserved for life-threatening alerts.
3. Why send out Wednesday's alert?
It was "the first opportunity that we had with a roadway that was blocked, completely blocked, and was going to be blocked for a period of time," Jones said.
Taking into consideration the time of day of the crash -- about 4:30 p.m. -- the location and the travel route for drivers, Jones said officials decided to issue the alert.
"It is a public safety emergency, it is something that we can let travelers know: they should this avoid area, seek alternate routes of travel and its going to be prolonged," Jones said.
The alert was sent to smartphones that were in the area an area south of 41st Street, north of U.S. Highway 14, far west of West Circle Drive and east to U.S. Highway 52. The alert lasted for about an hour so even if individuals weren't in the area when the crash occurred, if they came into the alert boundary they received the notice.
4. Was it really necessary?
Deciding on sending out the alert was debated and Jones acknowledged that in the future, it is unlikely an alert will be issued for a similar incident.
"I think for us, it was one of these things of 'Well, do we or don't we? We know that this impacts traffic. Does it really rise to the level of a public safety emergency?'" Jones said. "And we just decided since they've opened this up and its a local area, we haven't had the opportunity, this looked like it was legitimate."
5. Did I sign up for these alerts and forget?
No. If you have a smartphone, the alert system is most likely already built into the phone's operating software. (The IPAWS messages come through the Wireless Emergency Alerts system. The WEA site recommends that if you have questions on how to know if your phone has the capabilities to receive the messages to contact your wireless service provider.)
The alert system is an opt-out program. Because there are many makes and models of cellphones out there, the easiest way to figure out how to turn them off -- which many sites explaining how to do so don't recommend -- would be an internet search with the term "how to turn off emergency alerts" with the make and model of your phone.