A Normal Person’s Explanation for Emergency Alerts on Your Phone

Is this you?

  • “I just got an emergency notification.. What??”
  • “An amber alert just set my phone off and I honestly thought the world was ending.”
  • “Anyone else get the terrifying amber alert on their phone”
  • “Tonight I got my first ever phone alert from the national weather service.  kinda weird/scary”

If you’ve gotten one of these alerts, you might be wondering what’s going on.  Here’s a quick guide:

1) Wireless Emergency Alerts are the result of work by your wireless carrier, the FCC, FEMA and some other government agencies.  FEMA has created the network and the carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc.) are cooperating.

2) The alerts go to phones that fit into these categories:

– First, they are capable of getting the messages.  Older phones may not get them.  Even some smartphones don’t get them.

– Second, the phone is in the range of towers selected for the message.  The messages are supposed to go based on where you are.  So if you get a flash flood warning, that’s supposed to be in the area you are in.

– Third, you didn’t turn off (or you did turn on) the messages.  Not every carrier turns on all the messages by default, though we think that most do.

3) The messages are supposed to be about an emergency.  Mostly right now, they are coming from the National Weather Service and some state Amber Alert agencies. But local governments can send messages, too, once they are approved by FEMA, and over 150 counties have signed up.   The rules, according to FEMA, is that they have to be about an imminent threat to life or property.  So if you get a message, it’s about something important to someone.

4) The messages are short (90 characters).  So some of them are pretty cryptic.  Check the news if there’s not much detail.

5) The messages don’t cost you anything directly.  But some of them might cost you some sleep (many reports of noisy alarms).

6) The President can send messages too.  As far as we know, he hasn’t done that yet.

7) You can turn off the messages that come from everyone other than the President.

If you live in one of several thousand counties or cities that have signed up for an emergency notification system (brand names such as Hyper-Reach, Cassidian, Everbridge, etc.), you can also get text (SMS) messages or a phone call when there’s an emergency situation.  Since every community has their own website, we’re sponsoring a new website called the US National Emergency Alert Registry (www.usnear.org).  It will be ready in a few weeks.  Please sign up.




Demographics, Emergency Notification and Wireless Only: Case Study #2

We were saddened to see the news of a teenager killed in a drive-by shooting last week.  Since we don’t know the detailed circumstances of that tragedy, this article is not a commentary on the specific incident, although it is inspired by this story and we’ll use some of the specifics to illustrate the points we want to make.

According to news reports, the local sheriff’s office made Emergency Notification calls to about 4,000 numbers in the area, asking residents to report any helpful information for the investigation.  This particular county is about 36% “wireless only” with no landline at home, according to our estimates, so we’d guess that their target area has about 6,000 households and the the ENS calls would have missed about 2,000 potential homes they would otherwise have liked to call. That’s assuming they are calling their ALI database of landline telephones.  (We looked up their emergency notification sign-up page and it wasn’t clear to us, but again, we’re trying to generalize and the specifics are not too important.)

Because the victim was a teenager, the reach of an ENS system would be a little better, since the parents would be a little older.  But even 45-55 year olds are switching to “wireless only”.  So that 36% might really be closer to 25 – 30%.  That’s still a lot of potential witnesses.

And if the victim had been a young adult, say someone in their 20’s, the percentage of “wireless only” would be much higher.  As high as 60% – 70% in some parts of the US.

So the reach – and therefore the effectiveness – of so called “reverse 911” systems varies a lot by demographics.  And the impact is just going to get bigger. By 2015, over half the country will have no landline.

And the circumstances here do not lend themselves to a Wireless Emergency Alert.