Since You Asked: How Does Alert Montgomery Decide What To Notify Residents About

The alert system sends out about 700 notifications each year about significant traffic, police and weather events


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Sometimes it seems like I get a lot of notifications from Alert Montgomery and it’s made me wonder how the county decides what rises to the level of requiring an alert to be sent?

—A reader in Rockville

Bethesda Beat reporters have also been wondering about this question as we’re signed up to receive every alert that’s sent out—and often receive multiple alerts throughout the day.

Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, says the system has approximately 238,000 subscribers who receive alerts based on categories they’ve chosen. Those categories include traffic, weather, parks and recreation, public safety, health alerts, school specific emergencies and critical alerts. Alerts can be sent to landline and cell phones and to emails.

Critical alerts are sent to every Alert Montgomery user.

Critical alerts are classified as those emergencies that pose a significant risk to life, property or the general environment of Montgomery County,” according to information provided by Stoddard. “These are sent only at the direction of the Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security director or operations chief in consultation with subject matter experts.”

In 2016, Stoddard says, only two events triggered ‘all user’ alerts: the power outage in July that shut down the county’s 911 communications center and the May incident involving a Prince George’s County man who shot a total of four people at Westfield Montgomery mall in Bethesda and at a shopping center in Aspen Hill.

Here’s how the county determines what other alerts to send:

  •         Traffic: These alerts are sent countywide to those who sign up to receive them. This is done because a resident’s registered address is not necessarily aligned with his or her travel behaviors. These alerts are, however, limited to issues concerning major interstate highways and state numbered roads and are only sent for major road closures to prevent message fatigue. Alerts are sent out only when all lanes on a roadway are expected to be closed in one direction for an hour or longer. The county receives traffic information from multiple sources including its  transportation department, the State Highway Administration and the National Capital Region traffic monitoring system.
  •         Weather: Weather alerts are transmitted after they’re received from the National Weather Service (NWS). These alerts are primarily sent countywide except in cases where the NWS specifies a limited portion of the county (ie., northwest, central, southeast).
  •         Parks and recreation: Alerts are sent to subscribers who select this category when there are field and facility closures or special events such as Fourth of July fireworks. The county recreation or parks department officials determine whether to send these alerts.
  •         Police: These alerts are sent to individual police districts or to the whole county as determined by county police officials.
  •         Health alerts: The county has the ability to send these alerts countywide or to subscribers who select them based upon the geography of a health-based incident.
  •         School specific emergencies: These alerts are sent specifically to subscribers who select any one of the county’s schools or for the closure of the entire system. The Montgomery County Public Schools superintendent determines when to close schools.
  •          Other alerts: In some special circumstances, such as when police activity, major gas leaks, major water main breaks and other area-specific emergencies occur, alerts covering smaller geographical areas are sent by text and email to subscribers and by voice to land lines in these areas. The alerts are sent as directed by the county’s emergency management office.

The county typically sends out alerts from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Alerts sent outside those times are limited to “critical” notifications, according to Stoddard.

An example of an Alert Montgomery email sent to traffic subscribers in September

So far this year Alert Montgomery has sent out 567 alerts, or about 63 per month. The system is funded entirely by a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, although the county does pay about $21,800 annually in overtime hours for staff members who send out alerts outside of working hours. The automated system is maintained through a contract with Everbridge Inc. as part of a regional system that includes Washington, D.C., and Fairfax and Prince George’s counties.

Stoddard said the department does receive some complaints from residents about receiving too many alerts. He advises them to limit what type of alerts they receive and consider receiving alerts only through text messages or emails. Users can register for the system and change their preferences on the county’s website.

Have a question you’d like answered about someone or something in the Bethesda area? Email editorial@bethesdamagazine.com. Please include your name and the community in which you live.

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