AUSTIN (KXAN) — In the aftermath of the most recent ice storm in Central Texas, a Travis county commissioner is raising questions about the use of a notification system that can call, text, and email residents with vital information during emergencies.

Toward the end of a joint subcommittee meeting with representatives from the city, county, and school district on Feb. 17, Travis county commissioner Brigid Shea directed questions about communication to the county’s chief emergency management coordinator.

She was trying to figure out why the county did not use Warn Central Texas more often during the winter storm.

“The public will expect us to do a better job of communicating,” Shea said during the meeting.

Warn Central Texas was created by the Capital Area Council of Governments and provides local governments and municipalities the ability to send out messages to residents before and during emergencies.

Residents can sign up with their phone number and address to receive these important messages. CAPCOG said 64,443 people in Travis county self-registered their information into the regional notification system, but the entity also proactively enters numbers into the database to grow its reach.

Mason Canales, the public information coordinator for CAPCOG, said the entity uses two databases to import information for landline and cell phone numbers. Those two databases, along with the self-registered numbers, combine for a total of 1,495,061 contacts in the Warn Central Texas system.

The county could send out messages to almost 1.5 million numbers during an emergency. Yet, during this most recent winter storm the county only pushed out two messages on Warn Central Texas.

The first alert came on Sunday, Jan. 29, two days before ice started appearing on Austin roadways. The second alert came on the night of Tuesday, Jan. 31, a day before thousands of Austin residents woke up to no power. Both the alerts talked about the National Weather Service issuing a Winter Weather Advisory in the area.

Shea believes this system should have been used more frequently and had information that can update residents about what was happening during the storm. For example, Shea said sending an alert acknowledging the mass power outages during the storm and telling residents there was no time frame when power would be restored would have been good communication with residents and a good use of Warn Central Texas.

“I absolutely think we need to do a better job at using all the tools we have to communicate more timely with people,” Shea said during the meeting.

Shea thought the school districts did a good job of alerting and continuously updating parents about school closures. She also commended Cedar Park for how it used the Warn Central Texas system.

“We just have to use every tool at our disposal and I don’t think we should worry about over communicating,” Shea said.

The use of social media

The city and county both utilized social media and news releases to send out alerts and provide updates during the storm. The social media accounts also sent out tips and resources for residents as Austinites went days without power.

But history has shown that social media is not the only useful tool to communicate with the public.

After the winter storm in 2021, city council approved the creation of a winter storm review task force responsible for learning how to better respond and communicate in future weather disasters.

The task force found that, “relying on social media as a primary means of communication is ineffective for citizens who do not have devices or use applications to access it.”

The county is beginning its after-action review of this recent storm to see what went right and what went wrong.

Eric Carter, the county’s chief emergency management coordinator was at the subcommittee meeting on Feb. 17 and responded to Shea’s questions.

“That’s something we will be looking at. That’s one slice of the after-action review pie. We know we were pushing out communication. Were we hitting the right lanes? Those are things we’ll have to look at and reinforce,” Carter said.

Carter also added the county’s public information officers were very busy during the storm.