Emergency alerts are like insurance — one typically doesn’t think about them until they’re needed. When I have thought about emergency alerts, it’s usually in the context of wildfires. I’ll never forget the story that I was told once by someone who experienced the devastating wildfires that occurred near San Diego a few years ago. A couple was forced to flee their home, literally at the last moment, because they only had time to leap into their backyard swimming pool to escape the flames. There they bobbed for about four hours until they could be rescued. I think about that story every time I hear that a wildfire has broken out, and I pray that those in its path were warned early enough that they are able to get out of the way.

I live in an area of the country where we don’t have to worry about wildfires. But we do experience a tornado now and then. When I was a teenager, one tore through my neighborhood and created all sorts of havoc: baseball backstops twisted like pretzels; chimneys torn off roofs, with their bricks scattered about like giant reddish flakes of dandruff; above-ground swimming pools sucked dry; downed power lines; and dozens of trees uprooted. We were told that the tornado never actually touched down — good thing, because I’d hate to see what the neighborhood would have looked like if it had.

Back then, tornadoes were an unpleasant surprise, sort of like finding out your grandparents had gotten you underwear for Christmas when you had asked for a puppy. You know it’s possible, but you never really expect it. On the night described above, we knew something was brewing as the sky had taken on an ominous green tone, but a tornado? No way. Today, we are alerted whenever a funnel cloud has been sighted in our area. But the trouble with these unbelievably violent storms is that they tend to drop down out of nowhere, and they move very, very swiftly. About the best you can hope for is that the sirens will go off and you can get down into the basement before the roof is torn off. But, often, the tornado is there and gone before someone can hit the button.

So, as I mentioned above, I tend not to think about emergency alerts. Why worry about something over which you have absolutely no control and which most likely isn’t going to happen? That changed last week. I was awakened well before dawn by this proclamation, “Hey, wake up. Something’s happened, and your train line is shut down.” A freight train carrying hazardous cargo had derailed and caught fire. Now, don’t get me wrong — the MAS (a.k.a., the Mary Alert System) worked pretty well that morning, at least in terms of getting me out of the rack and letting me know that the derailment occurred a few miles from our home. That was a big relief, as the train line passes within a half mile of our home. But that’s all we knew, because that’s all the news media knew.

It would have been nice to know exactly what was on board and how much of it there was. It would have been nice to know the direction and speed of the wind, and whether we were in any danger of chemical exposure from the smoke that may or may not be wafting in our direction. It would have been nice to know whether we needed to get the hell out of Dodge. But we received no reverse 911 call, and our village — apparently — doesn’t have any other kind of emergency alert system in place.

A couple of weeks ago, Mary Rose Roberts wrote a story for our sister publication, Fire Chief, that referenced a survey conducted earlier this year that found that 90% of Americans believe that emergency-alert communications where they live need improvement. I wasn’t asked, but count me among them.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.