What Happens When Local Public Safety Can Use Wireless Emergency Alerts?

Wireless Emergency Alerts are becoming big news.  This is because the public is starting to receive them more and more frequently.

Just get on Twitter and search for “emergency alerts” or “emergency notification”.  You’ll get hundreds of hits, including many from people who’ve been scared out of their wits by some of the sounds coming form their phones.

But we’ve only just begun.  Most of the alerts so far are from the National Weather Service or are Amber Alerts about missing kids.

Under the FEMA program by which these alerts are being sent, local police, 911 and other agencies can sound out alerts too. And while the rules require that these agencies only use the alerts when there is imminent threat of loss of life or property, that can be a pretty low bar.

We’ve been compiling a list of all the ways that emergency notification systems get used today and it’s surprisingly long.   Here’s a sample:

  • Wild, poisonous or rabid animals on the loose;
  • Criminal activity, either active (shooter on the loose) or a recent pattern;
  • Weather hazards, including tornadoes, thunderstorms, heat waves, blizzards, extreme cold and their effects;
  • Environmental hazards, including chemical, fuel, and explosive releases;
  • Public health risks, such as contagious diseases;
  • Utility problems, including downed power lines and contaminated water.

This isn’t a complete list.  So far, we’ve compiled 136 specific types of emergencies that have resulted in some kind of notification, of which we think about 75+/- would qualify as a potential imminent threat.

We’ll bravely predict that some agencies will overuse the WEA capability and others will be reluctant to send out messages even when they are warranted.

So far, less than 5% of the nation’s counties and less than 1% of cities have applied for permission to use the system.  It will be interesting to see what happens as that number grows.