GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Federal Communications Commission work to test the effectiveness of emergency alert systems, there are growing concerns about a lack of language accessibility in certain communities. 

“We have a lot of people that they came, and they don’t know, they don’t speak English a lot and probably they are confusing,” Rosa Isela Corona said.

When a tornado touched down north of Grand Rapids on Aug. 24, 2023, Corona said she had no idea where to go or what to do, because it’s not something she had ever experienced before. 

“We just heard the tornado siren but it was just a practice, but we never expected any tornado close to us.”

Corona received an alert on her phone from the National Weather Service, but it was sent out late and came through in English. 

“All my friends received the message in English,” she said.

Since that is not her native language, it was difficult for her to understand what was happening. At first, she thought it was a drill. 

Two other women, Cristina Soria and Beatriz Diaz said they didn’t receive any alerts.

“I was afraid,” Soria said. 

“I didn’t know what’s going on outside or I don’t know when I would say OK, I think it’s time to go, and then I think I was nervous or afraid,” Diaz recalled. 

The city of Grand Rapids offers a valuable resource for people in the community to receive emergency alerts when there is severe weather such as a tornado or flash flood. 

“It automatically sends an alert to the phones that are registered for those alerts,” said Allison Farole, the city’s emergency management administrator.

Farole said the department has the ability to send out the alerts in Spanish, but it has to be done manually. On the night of the tornado, there wasn’t enough time to send out a translated version.

“We’re working on ways of improving. It’s not perfect. We know that, but we’re doing our best to do what we can to continue to grow and to improve and to close those gaps that we have,” Farole said.

Because it is an opt-in system, another challenge is getting the word out so people sign up. Currently, just 5% of the city is opted in. The national standard is 20%.

Corona, Soria and Diaz said they had no idea the city offered the service and added that most of their news comes from two Spanish newspapers: El Informador and El Vocero. Asked if the publication was aware of the city’s emergency alert system or working to get the word out about it, Karla Bahm, an editor with El Vocero, wrote back:

“It’s concerning to learn that even a platform like ours had no prior knowledge about the availability of these alerts, emphasizing the apparent need for improved promotional strategies. Furthermore, the requirement for residents to actively sign up for these alerts, coupled with the lack of availability in Spanish, raises valid concerns about the accessibility of this vital information.”

Farole said her team is working on it. 

“We now have an emergency management specialist that’s been hired on about six months ago, and part of her job of that is doing public outreach and education, so through that, we’re hoping to increase our number of folks that are registered,” she said.

These concerns, however, extend far beyond city lines. Following the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, which killed 91 people, New York Attorney General Leticia James sent a letter to the National Weather Service calling on it to issue weather alerts in all languages commonly spoken in the communities that receive them.

“This is not just a West Michigan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, thing. This is something that is highly talked about in the emergency management world across the country across the world. Really trying to find ways to improve,” Farole said. 

“The FCC right now is working on reviewing some updates for the WEA system, so the wireless emergency alert system that would include a lot of upgrades around language translation, which is fantastic. Over the summer, they were asking for feedback from the emergency management community and other alerting authorities and trying to get feedback on what that looks like and any concerns that we may have.”

She said it might seem simple, but there is a lot that goes into making sure a translation is accurate.

“You only have so many characters, and it doesn’t do an automatic translation and so we manually have to translate, and the character numbers change with different languages,” Farole explained. 

In February, the chairwoman of the FCC sent letters to the nation’s nine largest providers of WEA, seeking information on how they can support more languages.

One of the updates being considered, Farole said, is looking at how to match alerts to the language on the cell phone. 

“For example, in Japan, when they send out an emergency alert through a cell phone, it comes in through Japanese, and then if your primary language on your phone in English, it automatically translates it so you see both. So, they’re kind of looking at what does that look like and how effective is that.”

She added that emergency management staff are constantly sharing information and lessons learned to find out how to improve to the best of their abilities. 

“There’s a lot that goes into that, making sure we have the money to have the right systems in place, have the capacity of staff to be able to get out in the community and connect.”

Corona, Soria and Diaz are hopeful more information and resources will become available.

“It is like a lot of problems that we need to know where we have to go or who can help us in these cases,” Corona said. “We have winter soon, and we have to be ready with the same information.”