There’s a reason Los Angeles tends to get annihilated in disaster movies — LA scores 100 out of 100 on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Risk Index, which means that on any given day, there’s a lot that could be thrown our way. 

Whether it’s a flood, fire, or “The Big One,” one of the best ways to prepare for the worst is to make sure you’re signed up for emergency alerts — but trying to find which app or service alerts you to which disaster can be a bit daunting. The warning systems across the US are complicated, and Los Angeles is no different, with even more options than most due to the county’s size and risk profile. 

So we’ve prepared a one-stop shop list rounding up free LA emergency alert options.

Cheat sheet

These three steps are a great start to cover your bases: 

  • Check your cell phone’s settings and make sure you’re opted-in for wireless emergency alerts
  • Sign up for Alert LA County to get evacuation alerts
  • Find and sign up for emergency notifications from your city

The alerts you probably already get

Do you remember your cell phone buzzing with a warning about spiking Covid cases in 2020? That was a government-sent “wireless emergency alert,” or WEA. Authorized federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial officials can use this program to send text-style notifications free of charge to anyone with a compatible phone in an impacted area. These alerts warn about extreme weather or other “imminent threats” and public safety issues, and they come with their own distinct sound to grab your attention. For now, they are only available in English or Spanish, and they come with sound, vibration, and text for accessibility. 

FEMA estimates that the majority of cell phones out there today have the technology to get these alerts, and most providers have it turned on as the default setting. If you haven’t received one of these alerts before, it’s worth seeing if your cell phone model and wireless carrier are WEA compatible. There’s also a chance you chose to silence these alerts in the past, so you might want to check your settings (here’s how on iPhone and Android phones). The Federal Communications Commission offers some additional troubleshooting advice on its website, too. 

If you want to stay opted out from these messages or don’t have a cell phone, you can catch Emergency Alert System warnings by tuning into cable, satellite, and broadcast television, as well as AM/FM and satellite radio. While these alerts will interrupt your regularly-scheduled programming, you do have to be already watching or listening to catch these warnings, which can be riskier than choosing to leave WEA enabled or signing up for one of the options below. 

The alerts you have to opt into

While authorized Los Angeles officials do have the ability to send out WEA alerts, both the county and the city of LA also have their own specific alerting programs. These can provide additional translation and accessibility options, so it’s worth signing up for a few services.

For LA County

The Alert LA County system will tell you three things: if an evacuation order is likely, if you should evacuate, or if you should shelter in place. 

The sign-up page offers some customizations, allowing you to select from a short list of languages and register your business, too. You can also choose whether you’d like to be alerted via text, phone, or email (if you embrace chaos like I do, you can get all three). In addition to evacuation alerts, you can tick a couple boxes and receive extreme weather warnings from the National Weather Service (NWS) for some specific events, including tornadoes and tsunamis.

For LA cities

The city of Los Angeles has NotifyLA, which is a bit more of a broad-brush emergency and disaster notification system. Once you opt in, you’ll receive evacuation notices, warnings related to health and safety threats, and you’ll get a heads up on things like gas leaks and policy activity in your area. Like the county alerting program, this one comes with the choice to receive alerts via phone, email, and/or text, as well as a choice of languages and the ability to get alerted for multiple addresses. That way, you can add in your place of work, school, or other spots you and your loved ones frequent.

If you live in LA County but not the city, you can check this list to see if your city has its own service. Most cities, do, and several other use “Nixle.” The LA Fire Department also offers its own opt-in alerts, which will tell you about major incidents the department is responding to in your area.

For earthquake-specific alerts

If you’re up for downloading an app, MyShake is an earthquake detection and early warning system run by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the California Office of Emergency Services. The app will give you a brief heads-up via an emergency alert, on your phone, that a strong quake is underway in your area. The message is sent once movement begins in one place, and since quakes travel more slowly than phone signals, it may give you a few seconds advanced warning — just enough time to drop, cover, and hold on. 

There are English and Spanish versions of the MyShake app, both of which can be downloaded for free. If you have a smartphone running on Google’s Android operating system in California, this tech is actually built in, so there’s no need to download the app, but you do need to have location services enabled to receive these alerts. MyShake alerts come with audio and visual options for accessibility. 

If you have a disability

The California Foundation for Independent Living Centers has a website to help residents with disabilities to learn more about ways to get informed and prepared for disasters. For example, if you require electricity for devices, medication, or other needs related to your care, you can apply to receive resources or other assistance in the case of Public Safety Power Shutoffs. 

If you don’t have access to technology

Depending on the hazard, first responders might go to areas that are expected to be impacted to issue warnings, whether it’s going door-to-door or making helicopter announcements to alert unhoused residents. 

If you’re interested in taking a more proactive approach to getting emergency alerts but do not have any warnings-compatible devices, see if there are any mutual aid groups operating in your area. As the LA Public Press reported before Tropical Storm Hilary, neighborhood initiatives can be a key resource for residents looking for information related to disasters, including warnings or suggested protective actions. This LAPP article offers a great roundup of groups that mobilized for Hilary that could be helpful to contact.

Bonus action — let the city know what your disaster concerns are

The city of LA is currently in the process of updating its Local Hazard Mitigation Plan. Jon Brown, division chief of Planning and Resilience for the Los Angeles Emergency Management Department, told me this plan is the “official risk analysis of the city of LA,” identifying and assessing hazards that need to be addressed. It’s also a FEMA requirement to receive money for future mitigation projects.Right now, the city is circulating a survey to better understand residents’ concerns in their own day-to-day lives and neighborhoods, which will be used to inform this plan. The city has received more than 3,000 responses so far, but Brown says they are eager to receive “as many responses as possible.” If you want your thoughts heard on warnings or other disaster-related issues, you can fill out the survey (also available in Spanish) by December 1, 2023.