A neighboring county’s decision to automate its emergency alert system and include a Bluffton ZIP code in its distribution list caused confusion and frustration among thousands of Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office’s Nixle subscribers who say they were bombarded by text messages and emails about Tropical Storm Michael.
Jasper County Fire and Rescue started sending alerts Tuesday that were, for the most part, copies of the standard updates distributed by the National Weather Service.
Many Beaufort County subscribers received two copies of those messages about every three hours, even between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., which is typically a blackout period for public service advisories.
The city of Hardeeville, which is in Jasper County, also sent out its own weather service updates to Beaufort County residents but stopped Wednesday morning after the city’s media department was made aware of the duplication and redundancy issues.
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Jasper County Fire and Rescue continued to send the alerts, however, causing thousands of their subscribers to Nixle — a platform used by government agencies to send public advisories via text and email — to unsubscribe.
Beaufort County residents have voiced their complaints on Facebook and also to the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, which is not responsible for the issue.
Franklin Edwards, Jasper County’s director of emergency services, said Thursday he “wasn’t 100 percent sure why” the multiple messages were going out, but believes the blame lies with Nixle.
He said Jasper County was unable to immediately fix the problem, a notion contradicted Thursday by both Nixle and other agencies that use it.
Jim Gatta, director of community engagement with Everbridge, Nixle’s parent company, said that although Nixle is working to fix the duplication, Jasper County has the ability to control whether the National Weather Service alerts are sent automatically.
“They have two layers: one to turn the alerts on or off, and one that specifies the type of alerts sent out if they are turned on,” Gatta said. “The system also allows you to specify who is receiving the alerts.”
Edwards said a local retirement community is the reason for the agency’s encroachment into Beaufort County.
“Some of the problem is because Sun City shares the same ZIP code (with some areas of Bluffton), so they may get the same Nixle alert,” he said of the 2,000 Sun City Hilton Head residents who live on the Jasper County side of that community.
“We have to include that ZIP code, but that’s where there’s some crossover,” Edwards said.
But Gatta said Jasper County can control whether alerts go to residents in the 29910 ZIP code, which is primarily made up of Bluffton and Okatie residents in Beaufort County.
Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, which was criticized for the infrequency of its communication with the public during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, has since built a Nixle subscribership of more than 32,000, gaining about 27,000 subscribers in the past two years.
“The lesson learned (during Matthew) was that it’s instrumental to consistently engage (the public),” sheriff’s office spokesperson Capt. Bob Bromage said Thursday.
“If you need to make adjustments (to Nixle), you can make them immediately,” he said. “We’ve made adjustments in the past.”
Bromage said he was concerned that the onslaught of messages from Jasper County to Beaufort County residents might have a negative impact on Beaufort County’s ability to get the message out.
“Our fear is that people will stop paying attention (to Nixle),” he said. “Too many alerts will lead to desensitizing the public.”
Garrett Lucas, a spokesman for Jasper County Fire and Rescue, said Thursday that nearly a quarter of the roughly 16,000 people that Jasper County was sending alerts to had dropped the service by Wednesday.
“Obviously, yes, we’re concerned,” Lucas said of the rapid loss of 4,000 subscribers. “We’re working diligently with Nixle about the alerts going out.”
Though Jasper County was made aware of the issue Tuesday, Edwards said Thursday that the department decided to focus on getting through the storm before considering the Nixle problems.
“We need to get through the event and then we’ll sit and talk about the messages,” he said. “I’d rather have too much information (sent out) than not enough.”
Juan Singleton, Hardeeville’s media director, said the city turned off its National Weather Service-related Nixle alerts on Wednesday morning, though it did send out a tornado warning alert Wednesday night.
“I really think Nixle is a great tool,” he said Thursday. “But at this point, everyone knew what was happening with Michael. There was no need to send out more alerts. But we will turn it back on once Michael passes through.”
Singleton said he’s also concerned that Jasper County’s constant alerts will lead Hardeeville residents to unsubscribe from their Nixle alerts.
“We want everyone to be as informed as possible,” he said. “But it can be very irritating to get three to four alerts at 2 or 3 in the morning.
“You get 14 alerts overnight and then we get a call into our tip line from someone asking, ‘Could you please stop?’”