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Utah residents frustrated by travel declaration glitches

Sample of the text alert motorists will receive to fill out a declaration form when entering the state of Utah. (Marc Giauque, KSL Newsradio)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Several Utah residents living near the state border are expressing their frustrations with the governor’s recent directive to fill out a declaration form whenever entering the state. Glitches within the system are causing residents to inadvertently get the alerts on their phones — for some, several times a day — despite never crossing state lines.

The directive went into effect Friday, with several complaints within the first day. It’s the first time the state has ever deployed a targeted wireless alert system like this, which is why there may be some glitches along the way.

“These are extraordinary times, and Utah is taking extraordinary measures like using this technology,” according to the state’s coronavirus task force’s website. “There may be some kinks here and there, but it’s absolutely essential to help us stop the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19.”

The Utah Division of Emergency Management went to Twitter over the weekend, asking for feedback from Utahns to help improve the system. If Utahns experience the alert going off while sitting at home or get several notifications in one day they are asked to report those instances.

The alerts are similar to other emergency system tests, sending tones and vibrations that are more abrupt than SMS notifications. This has caused some residents to become annoyed with the repeated messages.

“You’re trying to have a peaceful morning, or whatever, because we’re all sitting around the house,” said Jean Liddell, who lives in Roosevelt County. “And all of a sudden, your phone just starts to blare.”

Liddell said she lives two or three miles outside of Roosevelt, which is roughly an hour drive from the state’s border. Yet, she’s gotten a notification every day since the directive rolled out.

“Every day I’ve gotten one and it’s been when I’ve been home,” she said. “I’m not even out of my house. […] I’m not even driving.”

She said she’ll even get them while she’s standing in her kitchen early in the morning. Liddell said her friends have reported getting 13 of the emergency notifications in one day.

The Utah Division of Emergency Management (DEM) tweeted Sunday morning it had updated the system, narrowing the alert areas. This is in hopes to limit the number of emergency notifications residents in the St. George and Vernal area would receive.

 

The alerts are set up to notify travelers to fill out a declaration form when crossing one of the nine border checkpoints:

  • I-15 at the Arizona border
  • US-89 north of Kanab
  • US-491/191 at Monticello
  • I-70 at the Colorado border
  • US-40 at the Colorado border
  • I-80 at the Wyoming border
  • I-15 at the Idaho border
  • I-84 at the Idaho border
  • I-80 at the Nevada border

However, the Utah DEM received calls from residents saying they were alerted in unexpected locations. Because the system can’t distinguish between whether the driver is entering or exiting the state, some unsuspecting visitors leaving Utah are getting bombarded with the messages as well.

For those motorists, the Utah DEM said they can ignore the message until they return to the state — which is when they will be expected to fill it out. However, the entire process is voluntary and there are no consequences for failing to fill out the form.

Some are raising concerns on the system as a whole — saying it’s a violation of privacy for the state government to track resident locations when they haven’t consented to it.

However, the department said no data is being recorded through the declaration form process — although the system operates through mobile devices, cell phone numbers and other personal information are not being stored.

“There is no tracking through this type of alert, which is delivered using cell broadcast,” the department said. “The government receives no record of who ends up receiving a message through our system. The only confirmation we normally get is when people post screenshots of their messages on social media.”

The personal and health-related information collected from the forms will be stored in a secure environment, with limited access to the data, according to the Utah DEM. The collected information will be transferred to the Utah Department of Health for any needed follow-up.