Emergency alerts: Fair warning or foul?

National system for issuing local emergency alerts via cellphones shows its value – and its shortcomings

Staff writerMarch 9, 2014 

National system for issuing local emergency alerts via cellphones shows its value – and its shortcomings.

MCT ILLUSTRATION

One button can have a big ripple effect.

Meteorologists at the National Weather Service’s Seattle office can hit the “enter” button on their computers and instantly distribute weather updates — often emergency warnings of imminent blizzards, tsunamis and other disasters.

The alerts go to dozens of media outlets and the Weather Service’s website, among other places.

For more than a year, they’ve also landed on the cellphones of thousands of Washington residents through the national Wireless Emergency Alert system. Congress approved the system in 2006 to provide instant warnings from emergency agencies throughout the country. To get the word out, the system uses cellphone carriers to complement other alerts, such as those on television and radio.

The mobile notification system, also used to send Amber Alerts, has saved lives in the state but has also caused headaches.

The system has in a few instances confused both cellphone users and the emergency agencies tasked with implementing it. Three of the eight messages sent in the state were sent too broadly and reached many recipients in the wrong areas. Two others went out before dawn and raised questions about what those receiving the alerts were expected to do in the middle of the night.

Cheri Gibbons got some of the unnecessary warnings.

“I didn’t really think that much of it, because I got a couple other alerts by accident a couple months ago,” the Tacoma woman told The News Tribune in June after a rogue alert. “Just kind of ignored it.”

The troubled rollout of the alert system in the Northwest prompted state and federal agencies to make changes to the system in the hope that cellphone users won’t opt out en masse — a thought that worries emergency officials. And while agencies work to get the word out about what the alerts are, many cellphone users say they still don’t understand them.

But amid the complaints, two missing children were found in the past year as a result of Amber Alerts sent to cellphones in Washington. And officials say countless people were saved elsewhere in the country because of weather warnings.

For example, in July, a camp director in East Windsor, Conn., shepherded 29 children to safety in a nearby building after getting a tornado warning on her cellphone moments before the storm touched down where the campers had been.

“To some people these things are annoying, but when you look at it as the big picture of saving lives, as a community as a whole, it’s the right thing to do,” said Ted Buehner, warning coordination meteorologist at the Weather Service in Seattle. “These are targeted for immediate, life-threatening, hazardous events.”

Making the complex system work has been “a huge undertaking,” said Carri Gordon, the Washington State Amber Alert coordinator for the Washington State Patrol.

“There’s a lot of players in this and a lot of pieces that all have to work together,” she said. “There really is no one agency that’s in charge of the whole process.”

The rollout of the system was especially complicated, she said.

“You start with FEMA, the cellphone companies, the National Weather Service, the Department of Emergency Management,” Gordon said. “There was not a whole lot of communication about how are we were going to work together to get the word out to the public, how this is going to be implemented.”

‘MY PHONE STARTED MAKING THE MOST HORRIBLE SOUND’

It started with a blizzard.

The first alert using the new system was sent to cellphone users in the state on Dec. 16, 2012, a crystal clear day in Pierce County and elsewhere in Western Washington.

Imminent Severe Alert

Blizzard Warning this area til 6:00 PM PST Mon.

Prepare. Avoid Travel.

Check media. -NWS

The storm never reached the lowlands of Western Washington, and residents had no reason to be worried. The alert — and a similar one sent the next day at 5 a.m. — were meant for the Cascades. But when the Weather Service in Seattle sent the alert to people living near the Cascades, the technology of the national system forwarded it to all the counties in the region.

Targeting the alerts by county worked elsewhere in the country but not in Washington, where counties are larger and have more varied terrain.

So it wasn’t just the parts of Pierce, King and other counties near the mountains that got the blizzard warning. People enjoying the sunshine in downtown Tacoma and elsewhere in the lowlands got it, too, surprising and confusing some.

“My phone started making the most horrible sound. I have never heard anything like it before,” Shawna Batty, who was in the South Hill Mall in Puyallup at the time, wrote The News Tribune.

She wasn’t the only one who was confused. Some local staff members at the Weather Service office didn’t know the details of how the alert system worked either, said Buehner, the warning coordination meteorologist in Seattle.

They do now.

“We sure learned what they were, didn’t we?” he said.

But even with the mix-up, some residents appreciated what the new system was trying to do.

“I hope the confused response some low-landers had when they received the National Weather Service warning does not dissuade the NWS from continuing to issue such alerts,” wrote Herb Munson. “I would like to get such messages when there is a threat to nearby areas.”

Munson is out of luck, when it comes to blizzards.

Because of problems with targeting alerts that happened elsewhere, including Wisconsin and New England, the committee that oversees the national system decided last year to cross blizzards and ice storms off its list of emergency alerts, Buehner said. Now the list covers tornados, hurricanes, extreme wind, typhoons, dust storms and flash flooding.

In February, the national committee added a new disaster to the list — tsunamis.

That, Buehner said, presents the same dilemma in the Northwest as the blizzard warnings did — everyone in a particular county might get a tsunami warning, even if they are nowhere near the ocean.

“Say there’s a tsunami warning issued for the Washington coast,” he said, “that same county issue is going to come up again.”

In this case, Buehner said, over-alerting about a tsunami could be less of an issue because many residents might appreciate being prepared for the traffic that could come from coastal residents flocking inland.

In fact, Buehner said, he’d like to see other emergency scenarios added to the alert list, possibly notifications of an impending eruption of Mount Rainier or for destructive thunderstorms.

“Is the system perfect?” he asked. “No. Are there actions being taken to try to tweak it and perfect it? Yes. It’s got a ways to go.”

Emergency alerts that arrived outside their targeted locations, in the middle of the night or that contained cryptic wording have confused some cellphone users. Emergency alerts that arrived outside their targeted locations, in the middle of the night or that contained cryptic wording have confused some cellphone users. (Click to enlarge graphic.)

‘I WAS ASSUMING THE SYSTEM WAS ALL SCREWED UP AGAIN’

All three of the weather alerts sent in the state reached cellphones for which they were not intended. After the two December blizzard alerts, a flash flooding warning was distributed to Western Washington cellphones on June 12, 2013.

Flash Flood Warning this area til 6 PM AST. Avoid flood areas. Check local media. -NWS

The flooded areas to avoid were about 3,700 miles away — in Puerto Rico.

It’s not clear how the flooding message was mistakenly sent locally, Buehner said, but apparently one cell carrier made a mistake.

At the time many people didn’t seem worried by notification of the imminent threat.

“I was assuming the system was all screwed up again,” said Andrew Grimberg of Tacoma.

“I thought it was odd as I could see plenty of blue sky out my window,” Abbey Riehs of Tacoma wrote the newspaper. “I wonder where it came from?”

Apparently T-Mobile, according to customers who wrote The News Tribune. The company did not respond to The News Tribune’s request for comment.

Despite the problems, Buehner said, the system is working — it’s just that the examples of success with mobile weather warnings aren’t in the Northwest. He pointed to tornado warnings in the Midwest as particularly effective and responsible for saving many lives.

“Those warnings have just been phenomenal,” he said.

The growing pains locally are to be expected with the rollout of any system of this size, Buehner said.

“Public policy trying to keep up with constantly evolving technology, that’s hard to do,” he said, then added with a laugh: “And you’re talking about Congress.”

Concerning confusion about the alerts, it’s important to remember the messages never were meant to give detailed information, he said. Limited to 90 characters, the alerts are intended just to sound the alarm and direct people to media outlets. Including specifics such as “Puerto Rico” or “Cascades” shouldn’t be necessary when the alerts reach phones in the areas affected.

The system is intended to be “a dinner bell,” Buehner said.

“Ring the bell, get your attention, find out more information,” he said.

That’s especially true when the system is used to send alerts about missing children.

WARNING CREATES CONFUSION

Hundreds of Pierce County residents awoke at 3:30 a.m. April 28, 2013, to their cellphones buzzing with a message that a child was missing.

But in fewer words.

Kalispell, MT AMBER Alert: LIC/AIH3659 (WA)

2002 Blue Ford Focus

Some residents asked why they were being told about a child missing in Montana. And more importantly, others wondered, what were they supposed to do about it in the middle of the night?

The State Patrol, which oversees the state’s Amber Alerts, later said the message wasn’t meant to wake up Western Washington. Agency officials said they learned the hard way that they were responsible for setting time parameters on the alerts to prevent them going out late at night, like the one in April did.

The agency set those parameters in June. Now the alert system is programmed not to send alerts after 10 p.m. or before 6 a.m.

As for the lack of details, the limit on the number of characters in an alert makes it “really hard” to describe a child and suspect, said Gordon, the Amber Alert coordinator for the State Patrol. That’s why the national system puts out only vehicle information. When the April alert was sent, the brevity (over which the state has no control) caused confusion.

“They didn’t know if they were looking for this vehicle in Washington, or if it could be in Montana,” she said of cell users. “And I can understand that. That makes sense to me.”

But while the April alert was an unwanted wake-up call for some, it did serve its purpose. The missing 1-year-old boy was found safe in Fife that morning as a result of the cellphone broadcast, Gordon said. In fact, of the five times the system has been sent Amber Alerts to the state, she noted, two children were found as a direct result of the cellphone messages.

“These are useful and they’ve proven very successful in locating these kids who have been abducted,” Gordon said. “There has been an education period, but it’s working.”

Still, State Patrol officials say, they understand that the more confusing and obnoxious the alerts are, the more cellphone users will choose to unsubscribe from the system.

“They’re so easy to turn off on your phone,” Gordon said. “If they get too many technical glitches, that’s going to be the public’s reaction — to turn them off.”

Because unsubscribing to the Amber and weather alerts involves just changing a setting on a cellphone, the agencies involved don’t know how many users have opted out.

The solution, Gordon thinks, is spreading the word about how the system is used.

Which has been difficult.

One issue she’s encountered is that some employees at local cellphone carrier stores didn’t know what the alerts are. Confused customers have called her directly and expressed those concerns, Gordon said.

“It was pretty alarming that they were going to their local cellphone carrier, and they didn’t know what it was themselves,” she said.

Gordon sits on a state emergency communications committee, along with many other players in the wireless alert system. They’re in the initial stages of a public information campaign to help cellphone users understand the alerts, she said. The State Patrol recently put out a YouTube video explaining the Amber Alert component.

And more alert recipients seem to know the drill now.

“Every large system is going to have its glitches in the beginning,” Tacoma resident Gibbons said in a follow-up interview with The News Tribune in February. “I think I understand the system and its intent.”

But for others, a public awareness campaign wouldn’t hurt.

“I haven’t a clue about how this system works or who runs it,” Munson, who was glad to get the initial blizzard alert, said in his follow-up interview. “I’m just glad it’s there.”

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268
alexis.krell@thenewstribune.com
thenewstribune.com/crime-news
@amkrell

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