In the wake of Sunday night’s massacre in Las Vegas, San Antonio City Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) is researching ways to enhance the City’s Alert SA text notification system and may offer a formal council consideration request to do so.

“What if that happened here?” is an unavoidable question, Pelaez told the Rivard Report after the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. “We at the City have a responsibility to look at those solutions [and responses] that are effective.”

Technology and enhanced policing techniques can go a long way in protecting residents, Pelaez said. “We need to take a closer look at a citywide alert system to let people know” when emergencies occur.

Pelaez and several other Council members said in telephone interviews Monday and Tuesday that it’s time to review San Antonio’s own emergency response in the wake of the tragedy in Nevada.

Stephen Paddock, 64, took his life after shooting hundreds of rounds into the Route 91 Harvest Festival grounds from his 32nd-floor hotel room, Clark County, Nevada, officials said. The latest death toll stands at 59; more than 500 people were injured.

Confusion and chaos is to be expected in mass shootings, Pelaez said, but good communication could save lives. Specifically, the Councilman would like to see the City’s text alert system reach more residents with helpful information about where to go or what to do in an emergency situation. Currently, less than 2% of the city’s population has signed up to receive texts through Alert SA.

“I’ve got City staff looking into what options are within the realm of possibility,” he said. For example, Pelaez cited university notification systems that require opting out instead of opting in, virtually guaranteeing that more students are notified. The University of Texas at San Antonio has a very low opt-out rate, officials said.

Council members echoed statements made Monday by San Antonio Police Chief William McManus about the difficulty of preventing such attacks.

“This is not preventable unless we have intelligence that would lead us to believe that something like this could happen,” McManus told reporters. “These random type events are off the radar.”

But emergency protocols can be improved at a local level, Pelaez said. “We’ve got a bullhorn … Local government can educate and spread information and make people understand options.”

He would like to see the City build up its alert system to reach as many people as weather warnings and Amber and Silver alert systems currently do.

“Obviously the infrastructure exists to get those messages out,” Pelaez said. “We owe it to ourselves to ask about that.”

The City’s Emergency Operations Center, which coordinates citywide emergency responses, hosts regular meetings to discuss security threats and other safety issues.

Police and fire departments offer disaster training sessions for public entities such as CPS Energy and emergency response and evacuation tactics for high-rise building tenants.

“I spent a lot of time in the Emergency Operations Center during the hurricane,” Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said. “I can tell you we have the right people, the right agencies in that one building to take care of future events.”

San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood recalls his efforts during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.
San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood recalls his efforts during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina at the Emergency Operations Center in August. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Roughly 23,000 people have signed up for the Alert SA text messages, said Joe Arrington, public information officer for the San Antonio Fire Department. The national average for similar programs across the country is an opt-in rate of 2% of population. Using the U.S. Census’ 2016 population estimate of almost 1.5 million, the local rate is just over 1.5%.

“What makes ours unique is it has a geofencing ability,” Arrington said. Notifications can be sent to people in certain areas, according to cell tower.

The national Emergency Alert System is implemented by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service. The system can target certain areas to deliver weather warnings and other emergency messages through television and radio stations. The FCC’s Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) basically send texts to certain populations by hopping on wireless carrier networks like AT&T and Verizon.

The Texas Department of Public Safety’s State Operations Center works with the FCC, law enforcement, National Weather Service, TxDOT, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and others to craft the desired messages. Residents receive texts without signing up for such alerts.

Public universities are required by state law to have an opt-out emergency text system. UTSA uses its system to provide various public safety-related updates to students, faculty, staff, and on-campus contractors, said Lorenzo Sanchez, who is the director of business continuity and emergency management for the university’s police department. It’s also linked to the university’s Facebook page and sends a scrolling message to computer desktops hooked up to its network.

Campus-wide alert systems proliferated in the U.S. after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 that left 32 people dead.

UTSA, with three campuses and a student body of just under 31,000, has about 35,000 people, including faculty and staff, signed up for the alerts, Sanchez said, adding that a “very small number” opt out. Specific numbers were not readily available.

“It’s one of the first things [students, faculty, and staff] do when they get here,” said Sanchez, who previously worked for the City’s Emergency Center. “They actually can’t do anything … register for classes or get an email address, for example … without going through the alert system first.”

But the City doesn’t have a mechanism for enrollment, Sanchez said. It’s based entirely on awareness of the Alert SA system.

That said, the text alert system isn’t perfect, he added.

It’s possible that the wrong area can be notified or there can be a false alarm, as in the case of the University of the Incarnate Word in 2015. A text told the campus that it was under lockdown, but university officials said a lockdown was never officially initiated when a gunman was purportedly spotted.

While disasters like Hurricane Harvey and the Vegas massacre increase sign-up rates, it’s still an opt-in system, Arrington said.

The interactive Ready South Texas mobile app was downloaded more than 60,000 times in the weeks before and after Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast, he said. Before Harvey, it had been downloaded fewer than 10,000 times. The app can be used for any emergency situation, from road closures to chemical spills to mass shootings.

Pelaez met Tuesday with the City’s Office of Innovation and Information Technology Services to start exploring current and possible technologies to piggyback onto the structure that the FCC provides. It’s possible that the City’s 311 app could provide a good home for some emergency notifications, he said.

“I’m in agreement with Manny 100% in the sense that we’ve got to get better notification and information flow,” said Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) told the Rivard Report on Tuesday. “Our blessing of not having encountered [major mass shootings] could leave us ill-prepared or not as resilient as we need to be.”

With the approach of large events such as the Tricentennial New Year’s Eve, NCAA Final Four, and Fiesta, “you’ll see City Council start to have these conversations.”

Improvements to emergency protocols is an easy measure to support, Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said, “and the conversation needs to happen. Sometimes you have to learn from disasters that happen in other communities.”

He would like to find out more about what protocols exists and “assure the community that there is a plan … We may need to refine it.”

Any opportunity to improve should be taken advantage of, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) agreed.

“This is a council that’s not going stand still,” Treviño said. “We need to find ways to be vocal and make sure that public safety is the paramount concern. As a Council member for downtown, we will make sure that we’re doing everything we can to provide a unified, strong voice for public safety.”

That could have a ripple effect on state and federal legislators, who should begin to hear cities’ concerns, he added.

Treviño and Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) cited the recent protests in San Antonio that drew armed men and women to Main Plaza for a City Council meeting as another reason to revisit safety protocols.

“In light of everything going on,” Viagran said, it’s worth reviewing City policy. “If there is a way that we at the local level can streamline things to make them more efficient and our city safer, I’m excited to see that.”

But again, the real power lies at the federal and state levels, Council members agreed.

“Honestly, folks always look to elected officials and politicians for answers about [mass shootings] like this,” Saldaña said, “but there are no answers for this at City Hall.”

Any answers will have to come from Washington, D.C., he said, in gun control legislation, which has been proposed but not genuinely discussed by Congress.

“I’m as frustrated as anybody in San Antonio – as a person who has seen the replay of the prayers and thoughts that come from legislators who should be taking action.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org