Emergency phone alerts have saved lives and caused confusion

Emergency phone alerts have saved lives and caused confusion

If you were shocked by your phone ringing and beeping at 2:17 PM ET on Wednesday, you’re not alone. The brief buzz was a test of the Wireless Emergency Alerts system, which FEMA launched more than a decade ago to provide alerts about extreme weather, missing children and other imminent threats. The National Weather Service and emergency management agencies have used the system effectively since its inception, but with some notable failures recently.

The Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system not only enables the U.S. government to immediately reach hundreds of millions of people across the country in the event of a large-scale emergency such as a terrorist attack, but it also allows local authorities to contact people in a specific area experiencing a greater threat. Local. Alerts appear as text messages and are accompanied by a special tone and vibration.

The National Weather Service issues WEAs in dangerous weather situations to attract the attention of people who may not follow local media or subscribe to weather alert services.

Michael Gerber, a meteorologist and emergency alerts expert with the weather service, said the alerts are “a game-changer in helping to send warnings to people quickly.” “I have heard dozens of stories of lives saved and tragedies averted as a result of women’s empowerment agreements.”

The system has had its share of successes and failures. The Federal Communications Commission said last year that emergency managers sent out more than 70,000 alerts warning of severe weather, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that 136 children were recovered because of AMBER alerts sent as WEAs.

But in early August, many people did not receive an evacuation notice issued by Hawaii’s Maui County during devastating fires that killed nearly 100 people. A glitch in the system also occurred later in the month, preventing officials in San Bernardino County from sending out an evacuation alert as Hurricane Hillary approached California.

Many system tests have gone awry as well. In 2018, also in Hawaii, what was supposed to be an internal test of the system triggered a false warning of a missile threat that caused a wave of panic. In April, several Floridians woke up at 4:45 a.m. to a test alert that was supposed to be broadcast on television, but instead set off alarms on cell phones. Florida Department of Emergency Management I apologize After a few hours. Just last month, the US Tsunami Warning Center mistakenly sent a test tsunami warning to phones in the eastern US.

In celebration of the alerts’ 10th anniversary, the weather service highlighted several improvements since they first appeared. For example, alerts can now be targeted to cell phones within a tenth of a mile of the area being warned, whereas previously, an entire county was alerted. The character limit has been increased from 90 to 360, allowing messages to include more information and calls to action.

The weather service is improving alerting

The Weather Service has made occasional changes to its weather alert thresholds – focusing on notifying the public of the most serious life-threatening hazards.

In 2020, the agency switched to sending flash flood alerts only when floods are classified as “major” or “catastrophic,” the two most severe of the three categories, thus reducing the number of flash flood radio alerts by about 85 percent. Previously, it issued a radio alert for every flash flood warning, typically totaling about 4,000 a year, a volume it feared could lead to people being desensitized to the danger.

But the agency has also expanded the types of risks that trigger its alerts.

In 2021, the Weather Service began issuing radio alerts for severe thunderstorm warnings that included the term “devastating,” a designation given to storms expected to produce life-threatening winds of at least 80 mph or hail at least 2.75 inches in diameter. Previously, no radio alerts had been issued for these warnings, which the weather service issues for any thunderstorm expected to produce damaging winds of at least 58 mph, hail at least an inch in diameter or a tornado.

In February, the Weather Service completed the implementation of emergency alerts for “high-impact” snowstorms that lead to sudden onset of blackout conditions and icy roads.

Find alerts for severe winter storms

Last month, New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) called for another change. She wrote a letter to the director of the Weather Service and the director of its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, requesting that radio alerts for severe winter storms be reinstated. The order came after 47 people died — many outdoors or in their cars — in a historic snowstorm last December that buried Buffalo in nearly 50 inches of snow in three days. In the letter, James noted that alerts were sent for major snowstorms when the system was deployed in 2012, but those alerts were discontinued the following year.

“It is likely that such alerts would have prompted more people to safely take preparatory measures in the coming days Before “From the storm, such as stocking up on groceries, medications, and other essential items, or moving elderly/sick family members or friends to safer locations,” James wrote. “Once the service confirmed the severity of the blizzard…and local authorities declared a driving ban, additional WEA alerts would have provided messages urging everyone to stay home and stay off the roads to avoid obstructing emergency crews and ambulances.”

James also called for alerts to be issued in more languages ​​than just English and Spanish after 18 people in New York, many of Asian descent, died in flooding from Hurricane Ida in 2021.

In weather emergencies, the lack of information in Spanish puts the public at risk

The Weather Service sent a response letter to James on Tuesday, weather service spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said in an email. The letter states that radio alerts for blizzard and ice storm warnings were terminated based on “public feedback, which strongly indicated that many WEAs were cumbersome, cumbersome, and unhelpful for impending weather events expected more than 12 hours in the future.” “, according to an excerpt shared with The Washington Post. The letter said that the agency is “reviewing the ability to issue” a special type of warning about “particularly dangerous” snowstorms and ice storms that “may enable” radio alerts to be activated.

When considering whether to expand its alerts, the weather service will need to address concerns about over-warning the public.

“Over-alert is a common fear in emergency management circles because it can lead people to ignore alerts and not take action. “The sheer volume of different updates can be similarly overwhelming, leading emergency alerts to be buried in a myriad of other messages.” “Many people have opted out of alerts when possible, digging through settings and turning off every alert they can find,” media and communications professors Elizabeth Elsesor and Hamilton Bean wrote in a commentary about Wednesday’s test.

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