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Are Authorities Abusing The Emergency Alert System?

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Smart phones across Los Angeles County received a screeching emergency alert around midnight last night with a fire warning. Even though the alert warned about a dock fire in the Port of Los Angeles, folks in a safe distance from the blaze—all the way from Woodland Hills to Pomona—still got the alert. The ominous alert read: "Fire Warning in this area until 0:47 AM PDT Take Shelter Now Los Angeles."

LAPD officer Sara Faden told LAist that they sent out the alert as a courtesy to the LAFD. There are different ways that authorities can use the alert system. They can send advisories out to a specific community or a larger group. Faden said, "It may have been someone accidentally who put in the wrong group."

This might explain why the alert was sent across the county instead of targeted areas like Long Beach, San Pedro or Wilmington that would have been affected by the fire. She said the person who sent it might have been more concerned with getting the important message out and in their haste sent it to a larger group.

The text itself went out pretty late. The fire had been first reported around 6:40 p.m., and the bulk of the fire had been contained by 8:30 p.m., according to ABC 7. The text went out over three hours later at 12:15 a.m. Faden said even though it was late, it was a good gesture to let locals know about the poor air quality. The "take shelter" warning, which seemed a little unclear, meant that they were advising people to stay indoors because of the poor air quality caused by the fire, not that they should find a new place to hide out.

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"Realistically, I think we did it as a courtesy for the fire department," she said. "It’s generally not a police and crime-related effort but because we were concerned for well being of the community, we did it as a outreach for people to be aware of the air quality."

Faden says they believe that erring on the side of caution is better. "I think it’s nice for anyone to be made aware of a potential hazard," she said. "I don’t know if some additional training might be helpful."

LAPD isn't the only agency that has messed up when using the emergency alert system since it went into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. Monterey Park accidentally sent out a test alert from to the entire county.

FEMA foresaw this problem when it rolled out the system. They told the Associated Press that they wanted to strike a balance between offering too much and too little information. They also want to make sure that they don't alienate people by sending them out at odd hours. Even before the system was used, some proponents of the program worried that if the system is not properly used, too many people will opt out and render it useless.

It's not hard to see how that could happen after one too many alerts like last night's.