Future Tense

How Many Wireless Emergency Alerts Are Too Many?

Emergency services often send out alerts when floods are expected.
Emergency services often send out alerts when floods are expected. Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Residents in the Northeast Corridor received one or more Wireless Emergency Alerts from the National Weather Service on Monday morning regarding flash floods. Some took to Twitter to voice their displeasure:

While there were cases of flooding in the Northeast on Monday, it appears that many recipients felt the danger was not imminent enough to merit this sort of loud, early-morning alert. Chris Strong, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service, defended the move. “I would say to give the system a chance,” he told WUSA9. “These alerts don’t go off all the time and when they do it’s for something that we feel is a serious threat to people’s lives.”

Hours after the flash flooding warning, the Arlington County Emergency Management department in Virginia sent out a tweet:

The department runs a separate notification system called Arlington Alert, which residents can opt into in order to receive local service announcements like traffic alerts. Jen Meyers, the public information officer for the department, told Slate that some subscribers of the service mistakenly thought that Arlington county had sent the flood warning. “A couple people were opting out of the Arlington Alerts because of it. We got a lot of social media backlash because people didn’t want the early morning alert,” she said, so the department wanted to distinguish itself from the National Weather Service. “We don’t want people to become fatigued with messaging so that they ignore it.”

The FCC and FEMA manage the alerts on the federal level, and state and local officials also have access to the system. Emergency services throughout the nation have grappled with determining what circumstances merit a Wireless Emergency Alert. If the scope is too broad, then the public may receive too many irrelevant alerts and eventually ignore them. People may even choose to turn them off, as cell carriers allow customers to disable Amber and severe weather alerts. (The only alerts that people cannot turn off are national security announcements from the president.) But if the scope is too narrow, of course, then many people won’t have access to lifesaving information in a timely manner.

In 2015, Texas authorities dealt with the consequences of a desensitized public when trying to warn people of floods that ultimately killed 21 people. The National Weather Service sent out an advisory to move to higher ground to almost every cellphone within range of a cell tower in warning areas, but emergency officials found that while people saw the message, they in many cases didn’t understand the severity of the issue and decided instead to ride it out. The fact that many of these people had survived previous storms by staying in their homes made them treat the alerts with indifference, and so they didn’t realize they needed to evacuate until it was too late.

Michigan officials sought to prevent the public from becoming inured to emergencies in 2017 when setting new guidelines for Amber alerts to reduce the number of times they were sent.
Although they received pushback from parents, authorities ultimately rewrote the rules so that missing persons units would not send out alerts when a child with disabilities wanders off or when there is a parental kidnapping. Officials, however, also sought to broaden the criteria by raising the maximum Amber age from 16 to 17 years old.

The most well-known mishap involving Wireless Emergency Alerts came in January, when Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency accidentally sent out an alert warning of an incoming ballistic missile. Hawaii residents received terrifying Wireless Emergency Alerts on their phones, such as “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” In the aftermath of this mistake, the FCC is now updating the system. Beyond ensuring that no mistakes like this ever occur again, the commission is also requiring wireless providers to improve their geo-targeting to better ensure that only people who are affected by an emergency will receive an alert.