As a rash of tornadoes in the central U.S. this week shows, we’re solidly in tornado season. It’s a time of year when, for decades, people in the middle of the country would find their favorite TV shows or radio stations interrupted by tornado watch and warning alerts. That grating, discordant noise still makes me want to run to the basement (or the most interior room of the house), but those alerts are a dying breed.
As many Americans now turn to streaming services for their entertainment at home and in the car, emergency alert systems will have to adapt to reach the widest swath of citizens. One 2018 survey conducted by private firm Cowen & Co. found that 27 percent of 2,500 adults polled said they watched Netflix most often, while 20 percent turn on cable TV, and 18 percent watch broadcast TV. Fortune reports that some major TV providers are losing hundreds of thousands of viewers in a single quarter, while Netflix’s U.S. subscriber base continues to grow. Hulu, though smaller, is growing even more quickly. And while a large share of Americans still tune in to traditional radio, there are now many options to supplant local stations, like Spotify, Apple music, and podcasts.
The U.S. emergency alert system is run by the Federal Communications Commission, which works with Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Weather Service to send out alerts. Most alerts are sent locally or regionally, but the emergency alert system can also send national messages. The FCC requires TV and radio stations to broadcast alerts, as well as cable and satellite channels, but so far, there’s no protocol in place to send out an alert to users of online platforms. That could change, though. In 2018, Sen. Brian Schatz helped introduced the Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement Act, which would, among other things, form a committee to investigate the feasibility of adding alerts to streaming services. (Schatz’s office did not immediately respond to a request for more information about the fate of the READI Act.)
Adding alerts to streaming services would have a few barriers. First, streaming companies would have to get on board, or Congress would have to mandate their participation. (Netflix declined to comment for this piece, and Hulu did not immediately respond to my request.) There are technological challenges, too. One question would be how streaming services could identify users in a specific range. TV and radio stations have a regional broadcast range, and cable companies have physical wires snaking into people’s homes, so they all have a pretty good idea of where people are watching. But it’s trickier for an internet connection. A streaming service could, in theory, send alerts to devices based on the IP address it’s using, but that can lead you astray: Some folks use virtual private networks to mask their location, or to appear to be in another location so they can access services, like shows or movies only available in a different country. (Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have blacklisted IP addresses known to be used by VPN services, but there are plenty of sites providing tips and services to get around that.) No matter what, there will be some misfires, but one hopes that such an alert would reach as many of the affected people as possible, even if that means a few false positives.
Should streaming companies adopt these messages, it’s not clear what they would look like, which could determine how effective they are at getting people to take action. Currently, the best hope for reaching someone watching a show, listening to music, or playing video games in the moments before a breaking emergency is to send them an alert via their cellphone. (Even so, if users are relaxing at home, their phone might not be close enough for them to see or hear the alert. Others might have opted out of receiving emergency messages on their phone entirely.) The current Wireless Emergency Alert system is limited to 90 characters, which doesn’t exactly allow for nuance or instructions.
Researchers have poured resources into learning which messages are most useful, and they’ve found that good messages include information about what the emergency is, where it’s happening, when it might happen, who’s sending the message (for instance, the National Weather Service), and what to do in response. Take this example provided by FEMA: “Tornado warning in this area until 6:30PM. Take shelter. Check local media. - NWS” The false-alarm Hawaii missile alert in 2018 was less exemplary, even aside from the fact that it was bad information; it failed to designate how long citizens had to “seek immediate shelter,” which areas were affected, and wasted precious characters insisting “this is not a drill.”
Without the character constraints of a cellphone alert, a visual or audio streaming service could do better. In fact, they could create new opportunities to deliver information beyond what’s in those traditional TV and radio sirens and the monotonous, crackly messages that follow. In a 2015 paper, a group of risk communications researchers write that currently, the wireless emergency warning system is actually more of an alert—“bell ringers” that are “designated to direct people’s attention”—whereas a true warning system would be “designed to provide additional information about what has happened and what to do about it.” The authors conceptualize a warning system that could include “inclusion of images such as maps, and hyperlinks.”
Another paper, written in 2018, also recommends these features. It notes that when the Wireless Emergency Alert system was first introduced in 2012, the current technology didn’t allow for such features. Given how slowly this tech moves, perhaps we should start thinking ahead. While the Wireless Emergency Alert system should certainly be overhauled for greater efficacy, perhaps streaming services could incorporate those enriched warning features into their alerts, allowing people to learn more about the threat, look at safety tips, or view radar information. The technology seems like it’s there; if you can develop a choose-your-own-adventure interactive movie, it seems entirely possible to design an interactive alert screen with a clickable “learn more” button.
In the meantime, now’s not a bad time to double-check that you have emergency alerts enabled in your phone settings. (Here’s a good guide.) And if you’re going to go on a streaming or gaming binge, coming up for air every once in a while to check for alerts doesn’t seem like a bad idea.