Monday, July 22, 2013

Fire Breathing Toaster: Caring About AMBER Alerts

by Bill Adler

Last week I wrote about the new emergency alert system that's being added to most smartphones, whether you want it or not: New smartphones and phones that get carrier software updates will automatically get three kind of alerts:

Emergency alerts, including flash floods and tornadoes Presidential alerts AMBER alerts

The software that does this is being baked into the phone's operating system itself; it's not an app that you can delete.

Your phone will make a loud noise when there's an alert, regardless of whether your phone's on silent or in "do not disturb" mode. That's right: the alerts barge right through whatever silent mode your phone is on, so that you'll get them at 3AM when you're asleep, at 11AM when you're in the middle of your annual physical, or at 9PM when you're attending a concert. You're at a wedding --maybe even your own wedding-- your phone's on silent, but the alert will still come through, and loudly. You can choose to turn off emergency and AMBER alerts entirely, but not presidential alerts. There are no halfway measures with emergency and AMBER alerts. You can't tell your phone that you only want alerts from say 7 AM to midnight or silence them during a meeting. It's everything or nothing.

I received emails saying that this is a good system: It's when you're asleep that you most need emergency alerts. Some people noted, as I did in my article, that not all emergency alerts are created equal: You don't, for example, need to know about a flash flood warning while you're safely tucked in bed.

What I want to ask about this week is this: What about AMBER alerts,, which are urgent notifications about abducted children? Should you keep the alerts on, knowing that you might be woken at 4AM, even though an AMBER alert won't affect you personally? Should you keep AMBER alerts turned on because, if an alert comes in during the day, you might be the one who spots that missing child?

Being woken up in the middle of the night by an AMBER alert isn't one of those rare, theoretical possibilities: it happened to thousands of New Yorkers last week. Here are what two people tweeted:

"Being woken up at 4am to an emergency alert on my phone for an amber alert was one of the most terrifying things ever"

"I deadass just thought the city was under attack. I never woke up so fast to google something in my life #AmberAlert"

On the one hand, keeping AMBER alerts turned on is guaranteed to suddenly jar you into the waking world some night. But on the hand, AMBER alerts save children. As somebody else put it on Twitter during that same July 17 mass wake-up in New York:

"This morning's amber alert: If your kid was missing you'd want every phone in #NYC to violently awaken everyone imaginable."

Time is of the essence when it comes to recovering abducted children. My question to you is:  Will you turn off AMBER alerts permanently? Or should you? One New Yorker expressed his ambivalence about it in his tweet, "Mixed emotions being woken up at 4 am by Amber alert on phone." Is there are greater good that warrants our being woken in the middle of the night every now and then? What do you think?


Bill Adler is a writer. He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets,", "Outwitting Squirrels,", and a mess of other books. He tweets at @billadler. Fire Breathing Toaster is published on Mondays.

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