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Missile threat would trigger local alert

After the recent news about North Korea's nuclear capabilities and the unfortunate false alert in Hawaii, I wondered if the state of Oregon has any kind of alert system (hopefully a bit more foolproof) in the case of a nuclear threat. After all, there is discussion that the North Koreans could soon have, or already have, the capability of hitting the U.S. mainland. How would we be alerted, or would we?

— Don, Medford

The state of Oregon does have an alert system, but "does not typically send out alerts to the general public," according to Cory Grogan, a spokesman for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. But don't panic, Don, that's because there are other sources who handle that.

According to Sara Rubrecht, Jackson County emergency manager, if there's a serious threat, be it wildfire or nuclear missile, the county has several tools for spreading an alert. So does the federal government.

Rubrecht recommends that if you haven't already done so, sign up for the Citizen Alert System, available in Jackson and Josephine counties. If you have a landline phone, you are automatically signed up. If you want alerts to come to your cellphone or work phone, however, you need to sign up online at https://jacksoncountyor.org/emergency/Resources/Citizen-Alert.

That alert system is much more likely to be used to let you know about wildfire danger or missing persons than about a nuclear attack — thank goodness — but could be engaged for the latter, as well. There are other notification systems in place for major emergencies, including:

  • The Emergency Alert System, "the old traditional 'wonk, wonk' sound you hear on TV," Rubrecht says. In that legacy system that was initiated in the 1960s, Rubrecht's office and other emergency management offices elsewhere can send out a message to a primary broadcaster — KOBI-TV locally — which will automatically forward it to other TV and radio broadcasters. Those broadcasters can set up their systems to broadcast it either automatically or manually.
  • The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System was created following Hurricane Katrina in 2006 to unite the federal government's Emergency Alert System, National Warning System, Wireless Emergency Alerts and NOAA Weather Radio. The alerts from that system, operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also can be forwarded by Rubrecht's office through local systems. Alerts through that system are likely to come from the president and can be sent to cellphones, satellite and cable TV, digital billboards and to a network of landline phones.

Back at the state office, Grogan notes that while the state system "has some pre-scripted messages (e.g., flood warnings, winter storm warning, tsunami warnings), we do not have a pre-scripted “nuclear attack” message as Hawaii does." So it's unlikely someone will press a wrong button and set off a major panic.

Grogan and Rubrecht each stressed the importance of signing up for emergency alerts. In addition to the county alert system, you can sign up for the National Warning System on your cellphone (at the bottom of Notifications on an iPhone, for instance).

OK, Don, that's what we've got. Unless you're hiding under a rock, you should hear, see and/or receive plenty of alerts if there's a nuclear missile headed our way. Of course, at that point, hiding under a rock might not be a bad idea.

— Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. To see a collection of columns, go to mailtribune.com/youasked. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.