Emergency alerts may leave cellphone users in danger

As more people ditch their landline phones, new emergency warning systems in Florida could leave half of South Florida in danger.

The systems operated by county governments will send warnings about flooding, hurricanes, hazardous spills and other emergencies to all homes with landlines, but if you have only a cellphone, you won’t be warned unless you sign up.

Of the 2.1 million households in Palm, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, only 1.1 million had landlines as of June 2016, according to the Federal Communications Commission. That was 150,000 fewer landlines than two years earlier.

Statewide, AT&T’s number of landline customers dropped 22 percent last year alone, according to the Florida Public Service Commission.

The emergency warning systems are part of a network of alert systems used in emergencies. Separately, individual cities operate warning systems that are more likely to cover neighborhood or citywide concerns. Like the county systems, those warnings reach mobile users only if they sign up.

Mobile phone users who don’t sign up will still see some emergency alerts on their phones – like Amber Alerts and weather warnings – if they have turned on notifications on their devices. But the messages have limited information, with a maximum of 90 characters. And they are blasted from wireless cellphone towers, meaning only phones within range can get them. If you’re out of town, you won’t be warned about an emergency at home.

Aside from those messages, the law requires that most alerts can go only to mobile phone owners who have agreed to receive them. Permission isn’t required to send phone messages to landlines in homes or businesses listed in the white or yellow pages.

Florida is spending $3.5 million a year to systems, but only 123,000 people have signed up to receive the alerts on their mobile devices, which is less than 1 percent of the 21 million-plus cellphones in service. Some cities have also joined the state network.

The warning systems are relatively new. Broward County’s system, called , was activated in July. Palm Beach County’s system, known as , started in January.

Broward has signed up a little more than 200 people in its first three weeks, and Palm Beach County has added about 4,000 people since the beginning of the year. Miami-Dade Alerts, a 5-year-old system paid for by the county, has 7,815 subscribers.

“It’s always challenging,” said Miguel Ascarrunz, Broward’s emergency management director.

In Palm Beach County, “we’re really trying to make this part of our outreach campaign,” said Mary Blakeney, senior manager in the division of emergency management.

Residents are encouraged to sign up for both city and county systems, officials said.

Boca Raton resident Michele Bellisari signed up her cellphone for her notification system in October when she found out about it while browsing the city’s website.

“Hurricane Matthew was coming and I saw that they had the messaging system. I thought this was great, everybody needs something like that," Bellisari said.

Boca Raton has about 6,000 cellphone users signed up for its system, called CodeRed, which started in 2003.

Fort Lauderdale’s CodeRed system has 4,300 people signed up to receive text messages.

Ascarrunz and Blakeney said it’ll take more publicity to get the word out about mobile phone alerts. But people also are warned through news conferences and releases, email blasts and social media, they said.

To sign up for AlertBroward, go to . AlertPBC. For AlertPBC, go to . For information about a city emergency notification system, check out the city’s online website.

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