MnDOT to tap into wireless alert systems for highway closures

Interstate 94 on-ramp
A blizzard prompted the closure of the on-ramp to east-bound Interstate 94 in Moorhead, Minn. Minnesota Department of Transportation
Nathaniel Minor | MPR News 2013

With the impending possibility of winter weather shutting down highways, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has a new way to alert drivers of road closures.

It works through the same technology as an Amber Alert or national emergency alert, which is administered through the Federal Emergency Mangement Agency.

The department has had access to the wireless emergency alert system since the summer. This will be the first winter season with the phone alerts.

If you’ve ever received an Amber Alert on your phone, the sound and visual cues will be similar. A message will have a description of the closure or incident and a link to the 511mn.org website.

“EMERGENCY ALERT — The I-90 corridor is closed from the South Dakota border to Albert Lea due to blizzard conditions. Go to www.511mn.org for more information and updates."

- Example emergency alert
FEMA Tests New Presidential Alert System
In this photo illustration, a phone displays an emergency alert message.
Theo Wargo | Getty Images

Alerts can also be tied to geolocations, so drivers and passengers who approach the closed highway can still receive the alert even hours after the closure has begun.

The alerts will be sent to all mobile phones within a one-mile band around the highway, and 10 miles ahead of any closure location. But could be adjusted in size if alerting travelers can give them time to change plans or stop in a location to find shelter.

“We've got travelers who are coming from a great distance, maybe haven't paid attention to what's happening on the roadway, haven't seen that digital message board. Now if they enter the zone that's impacted by the closure, they’ll get that alert,” MnDOT spokesperson Anne Meyer said. “That’s a really helpful way to capture some of those folks who aren't from Minnesota.”

Don’t worry about being inundated by alerts all winter. Meyer said the threshold is to only send a push for closures that are expected to be more than four hours long, and will only occur within the designated geographic area. And MnDOT will only issue alerts for roads they have jurisdiction over like interstates and state highways.

“We have been asked if folks can opt out. And they can, just like any of those alerts out there.” Meyer said. “But Amber Alerts are another thing you would stop getting if you opt out. So we really encourage folks to not opt out. It’ll probably be information that will really be helpful when you need it most.”

Other state transit departments in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Texas have used these systems, and there are local sheriff’s offices throughout Minnesota that have agreements to use the federal alert system as well.

MnDOT will continue to share information through digital message boards, social media and news outlets when road closures are in effect.

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