What blizzard? New emergency alert system for mobile phones misses mark

NWS emergency warningWhen the National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for the Cascades on Sunday afternoon, a lot of Seattle-area smartphone owners received an alert that was long on drama and short on details.

The alerts came in various shapes and forms but were confusing to people who looked out the window and saw rain and temperatures in the 40s.

Both T-Mobile and Verizon customers reported receiving the alert, part of a system that began going live nationally in June.

In Facebook and Twitter discussions, no Seattle-area AT&T or Sprint customer has reported receiving an alert. The AT&T customer service technician I talked to about 5:30 pm Sunday said, “we are still working with FCC … we don’t have a specific release date yet.”

This is what the alert (it’s not a text message) said:

“Severe alert: Blizzard Warning this area til 6:00 p.m. PST Mon. Prepare. Avoid Travel. Check media. -NWS.”

This is how it could have been written to be helpful:

“Severe alert: Blizzard Warning for Cascade slope and passes til 6 pm PST Mon. Avoid Travel. Check wrh.noaa.gov/sew - National Weather Service.”

These alerts are part of a national emergency communications program, the Commercial Mobile Alert System, which is managed by the Federal Communications Commission:

[C]ustomers who own an enabled mobile device [will] receive geographically-targeted, text-like messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area… CMAS was established pursuant to the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act.

[...]

CMAS alerts are transmitted using a new technology that is separate and different from voice calls and SMS text messages. This new technology ensures that emergency alerts will not get stuck in highly congested user areas, which can happen with standard mobile voice and texting services (emphasis added).

Reportedly, you can configure your smartphone so that it will not deliver weather or amber alerts but you cannot disable the Presidential alerts.

In October, MacWorld reported that iPhone5/iOS6 customers are a mixed bag:

“Some users also get new settings in the Notifications screen—at the bottom, grouped under Government Alerts—for enabling or disabling AMBER Alerts and Emergency Alerts. In our testing in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sprint and Verizon users see these settings, while AT&T users do not. However, the availability of these settings also appear to depend on your location: Responses to an informal poll of Twitter users indicate that Verizon users in some parts of the country get the settings, but those in other locations do not.”

To find out what’s up with your carrier, follow these links:

Until the alerts have more useful contextual information, my recommendation is to turn them off. Download an app (free or paid) that will provide you with a contextual alert.

Screen capture from Eric Butler via Twitter.
Post updated to include text of alert and suggested rewrite. 

Kathy Gill has 20 years experience in digital media—both development and instruction. Since 2003, she has taught at the University of Washington and currently manages the website for King County Elections. A political junkie, her consulting work includes four years writing about U.S. politics for about.com, one of the top 10 visited Web content sites on the Internet, and she has worked with Boeing, AT&T Wireless, SAFECO, and Microsoft on intranet projects.

  • Breakitgood

    Great idea – bad implementation
    Did they even wave it in front of a test group??

  • mikehar

    Why do you recommend that we turn them off? So far there has only been one and it wasn’t really a big deal. Seems like a bit of an overreaction. The rest of your article was nice and informative.

    • http://twitter.com/Kimberley Kimberley

      Many people received multiple alerts.

  • C-D

    oh so the 3′ of now in the mountains just 45min- an hour from seattle doesnt justify a blizzard warning? i think more info should have been provided on actual location of the storm but it was more than justified and saying it “missed the mark” is unfounded…

  • Guest

    I don’t live in the mountains and Verizon knows it. Shame on this mobile phone provider for inciting panic unnecessarily. I expect remuneration.

  • http://WiredPen.com/ kegill

    Hi, folks:

    @BreakItGood – I’m pretty sure there was no user experience person involved in the testing. Functional testing – that they probably did.

    mikehar – I recommend turning it off until the messages have more context or a link to more information. If you want weather alerts, there are free and paid apps that will provide you with an alert plus the information you need to make a judgment.

    @C-D – As presented, the blizzard warning created more confusion than helped with planning. It was cryptic and wrong. It said “Blizzard Warning this area” not “Blizzard warning in the Cascades and passes.” The later would have been both informative and helpful.

    @Guest – there is no cost to you for receiving this alert. It was not a text and it was not Verizon’s decision to send it. It was the National Weather Service that made the call (even if it was an automagic one).

    • Guest

      There was a cost to me. My time is very valuable and Verizon has wasted it. My emotions are very valuable and Verizon has engaged them needlessly. I expect remuneration.
      Once I receive a cheque, a bill credit, and/or a new phone in the amount of $4,500, my distress will subside.

      • http://WiredPen.com/ kegill

        :-) I should have said no fees.

  • C-D

    i think the only people who were caused any “confusion” by it were the people who probably don’t understand technology in the first place, I’m a tech guy, I’m on the computer almost as much as i sleep in a day… so the first thing i thought to do was check the weather reports and then the reports in the mountains and realized it meant the 3′ of snow expected OVERNIGHT on the last day of a weekend… HMMMM travelers much? if you know anything about Washington you know people cross the passes as much as they drive far north or south of their living area… this message was supposed to alert people to check the crazy weather that is going on in their area (yes, the mountains are close enough they are considered our area as some of us have family on the other side of them. the point is, i agree it was worded badly and some people didn’t understand, but think about it, this is the first one we have gotten… its a trial run, you don’t base the future of something off of the trial run, you build from it and make it better. keep thinking about it. one day this service is gonna do some amazing good and you will rethink what you posted. and i hope you do. because this is an amazing idea and worked for the tech savvy young people i know who automatically went and did what it said “check local media for more information” weren’t confused because they saw it meant our AREA not our NEIGHBORHOOD.

  • http://WiredPen.com/ kegill

    Hi, C-D : First, I was alerted to this by friends on Twitter and Facebook. If you look at a Twitter search on Seattle and Blizzard you’ll still see people saying “what the heck?” My suggestion about turning them off is conditional — “Until the alerts have more useful contextual information” — I’m not saying that they should be turned off forever.

    But if they remain this cryptic, they can cause more harm than good because people will either ignore them or turn them off and not think of them again.

    And Seattle isn’t the first place to have people ask “what’s going on with my phone?” So it seems as though the NWS isn’t learning: http://www.nctimes.com/news/local/sdcounty/tech-verizon-users-get-confusing-text-weather-warnings/article_45098a96-2075-5095-9083-32139a1b4bf1.html

    http://www.countynewscenter.com/news/national-cell-phone-alert-system-activated-first-time-san-diego

    Another round-up from July:
    http://www.awareforum.org/2012/07/public-showing-mixed-reactions-to-recent-cmas-messages/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003672218920 Nathan Pritchard

    My wife and I live just south of Seattle. She was at home yesterday while I was at Crystal Mountain skiing. I left just after the heavy snow started and had good cell coverage on the mountain and most of the way down. She got a blizzard warning and I did not. Go figure. Looks like another one came in overnight.

    I agree with C-D that tech savvy people will do some research, but the initial attempt is incredibly moronic as it has the potential to waste countless minutes across hundreds of thousands of people’s lives if everyone has to go do that. The vast majority of people in this region rarely go across the passes this time of year, regardless of how close it is. Anyone doing so should be checking the weather reports anyway. The net result is needless confusion (and possibly panic) for almost everyone that receives it, benefiting only those headed over the mountains who hadn’t already checked the weather.

    The one problem I have with turning them off until they are better is that I may not know when they are better unless I actually see them as they come in. :)

    • http://WiredPen.com/ kegill

      Hi, Nathan – that seems very odd. Who is your provider? I’ve read at least one report that the cell companies have some leeway over how broadly they transmit the alert.

  • Marisa

    Waking up at 5am in Seattle to the warning this morning was unpleasant. I apparently have an Emergency Alerts app so I promptly turned it all off (except for the Presidential level since that is mandatory). Seems like a better implementation would be to allow different notifications for severity to go out between certain hours. I wouldn’t mind the lower level (“Severe”) during daytime, but I don’t need to be notified about a wind storm while I’m sleeping and not affected by power outages anyways.

    • http://WiredPen.com/ kegill

      Hi, Marisa – Would you mind taking a screen capture that shows the app? And which smartphone do you have?

  • Michele

    Maybe the message wasn’t right, but telling people to turn it off seems irresponsible vs. providing feedback to make it better. I came across the Pass last night and it’s shocking to see the cars making an attempt without chains (or in completely inappropriate cars even with chains). We just made it across the Pass before it was closed down and saw two accidents on the East and West side lanes that likely closed the Pass in both directions. When the Pass closes, you could be stuck in your car for hours and need to think about being prepared (food, water, clothes, blankets, full tank of gas, etc.). Multiple people also died this weekend on the mountain roads (including a close friend of a friend). Many people who are not use to driving in these conditions are starting their road trips right now for the holidays (School break starts this week). If a simple text to their phone makes them think twice, it is worth it.

    • http://WiredPen.com/ kegill

      Hi, Michele – I would hope that anyone who lives here would know to check weather conditions before traveling across the pass from November – March. And to have proper tires/traction.

  • Kate S

    I am an AT&T wireless customer and I have gotten 3 of the “bllizzard alerts”. A high wind warning would have been more appropriate. The last one just a few minutes ago and one about 4:30-5:00 am. I appreciate weather alerts but I am afraid these “blizzard warnings” will encourage people to disable or turn off the service…..it is an unfortunate roll out…..

    • http://WiredPen.com/ kegill

      Hi, Kate – wow. Which smartphone? Would you mind taking a screen capture that shows the app? Many many TIA.

  • guest

    sheesh, all these people that are complaining about getting a message that “wasted” their time. Yeah, I bet you spent 2 minutes checking it out. Sure, it could have been clearer but let’s look on the bright side – the alert system works. I bet you’d feel a lot differently if you didn’t get a warning and something bad happened.

    • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

      I think the major point is thanks to how poorly this was handled a lot of people now won’t get the warning when something bad does happen because so many people went and turned this off.

      Alert fatigue is a real issue that crisis communications professionals know to account for. This project clearly didn’t have any of that expertise involved as you couldn’t have designed it better if your goal was to get as many people as possible to disable this service after first use.

      • Ryan

        You are correct about this, everyone in the office was asking about how to disable this on their phones this morning. Nothing better to get them to do that than a cryptic and overly dramatic false alarm at 5am in the morning. Good job NWS.

        • http://WiredPen.com/ kegill

          Ryan, what was the 5 am alert?

      • http://WiredPen.com/ kegill

        Thanks, Christopher — given that the Seattle response is not unique, it also seems as though the FCC/FEMA folks haven’t learned or iterated. It also does not seem to be possible to retrieve an alert after it’s disappeared (based on my experience with a Verizon iPhone today).

        • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

          Annoyingly, this isn’t the first time there’s been stupid or dangerous “alert policy” mandated on phones.

          If you remember a few years ago carriers were forced to implement a system so that when you dialed 911 the phone would make a loud audible alert telling you you called 911.

          As soon as some people in danger tried to call 911 while hiding and hear that, everyone realized that wasn’t a smart idea either.

          The problem is that government agencies look at the ability to send alerts as an entitlement and so don’t feel they have to tailor the message or account for customer impact.

          The 5AM alerts by the way were the same ones you’re talking about. My wife got one which woke us both up. Particularly annoying since the worst of the storm had passed by then.

        • http://twitter.com/SuzanneMorss Suzanne Morss

          If you go to your IM app and scroll, it will be there (at least for me).

  • Bogus

    I had my phone set to vibrate. I was in church. My phone then begin to make all sorts of audible alerts. Upon checking my phone it was a bogus blizzard alert. Due to this, I have disabled all notifications. I don’t want these crap alerts ever again, especially when they are bogus.

    • http://WiredPen.com/ kegill

      Oh – I had not thought about the audible nature of the alert. When I looked at a Verizon iPhone today I did not see any way to disable audio and keep text. It was either “on” or “off”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/natalie.barm Natalie Barmicheva Seaton

    Try getting this insane buzzing alert at 5 am in the morning on Monday. That’s missing the mark twice and alerting the entire State of Washington with a fake alert. Nice going, folks. May you be awaken that way every single morning for the rest of your life.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=542659233 Florian Laplantif

    I got another one of these at 5am. I was no longer amused.

    • http://WiredPen.com/ kegill

      Hi, Florian – what was the 5am alert?