Monday, July 15, 2013

Fire Breathing Toaster: Emergency Alerts at 3 AM!

by Bill Adler

If a tweet is worth a thousand words (or even just a dozen words), then Somebody in Charge should pay attention to these tweets:

@coquettecutie A wireless emergency alert for EVERY flash flood warning? In DC? During monsoon season? Freaked me out at 3 am! How do I change?

@digitalpharaoh Ok. I really didn't need the Flash Flood Alert from the EAS on my PHONE at 4:24am. Really. I was asleep

@AnnapolisScott Cell phone Emerg. Alert at 4:30AM!  Thought maybe something serious had happened.  EMERGENCY ALERT: FLASH FLOOD WARNING ... Really @ 4:30am?

Here's the backstory: Cell phone providers, in coordination with the government, now push emergency alerts, called wireless emergency alerts, directly to your phone. Cell phone companies aren't required to do this, but, most do, including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile. The wireless alert system has probably already been baked into your cell phone's software through an over-the-air software upgrade; if not, it will be soon. The alerts aren't text messages; they're a communications system unto themselves. Here's the FCC's guide to the wireless alert system: The alerts originate from a local emergency management agency, not from your cell phone company.

There are three kinds of alerts that can be pushed to your phone: AMBER alerts about missing children, emergency alerts relating to public safety and life-threatening emergencies, and Presidential alerts. You can turn off AMBER alerts and emergency alerts, but not Presidential alerts. The wireless alert system is aware of your location through your phone's GPS, so you receive only those alerts that affect where you happen to be. Alerts flash on your phone's screen and make your phone emit a loud, screeching sound.

So far, so good. Fast forward to July 12, 2013. Depending on your exact location, between roughly 3 AM and 4:30 AM, tens of thousands of DC area phones woke tens of thousands of people up from a deep sleep to alert them about a...flash flood. I received two alerts that morning, one at 12:15 AM, the other at 3:09 AM. The alerts arrived even if your phone was set on "do not disturb." They arrived even if your phone was set to *silent.* Writes one Twitter correspondent, @msbathgate, "Whoever allowed the National Weather Service to send an alert to my phone overriding the silent mode should be fired on the spot."

A flash flood is dangerous, but not if you're in bed at 3 o'clock in the morning. (Nationwide, approximately 99 people die a year in flash floods.) Flash flood warnings happen frequently in the Washington, DC area, too.

So what's going to happen now? A lot of people --including me-- are turning off their alert system entirely. (On the iPhone, go to Settings/Notifications/Government Alerts and slide to off. Blackberry and Android users look here:

The wireless alert system could be a great idea. It's so much better than air raid sirens of days gone by: Who knew if the siren was a test or if the end was nigh? It's much better than television alerts, because a lot of people aren't watching TV when there's an emergency. It's better than an email system that you can sign up for, because if you happen not to check your email, you'll miss the alert. But the FCC and cell phone companies' wireless alert system is going to go the way of smoke detectors that beep low batt in the middle of the night, unless they figure out a way to make alerts smarter -- as in don't wake tens or hundreds of thousands of people if it's not a real emergency for them. People disconnect their smoke detectors when they sing the low battery song at 3 AM, never to put a new battery back in. Let's hope that the makers of the new cell phone emergency alert system don't cause people to turn off their emergency alerts and never turn them back on again. In other words, real emergencies only, please.


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.


  1. I don't like 3am alerts, either, but I'd rather leave my phone in full-alert mode, so that I WILL get notification about a tornado (or other emergency). Maybe a flash flood isn't something that would affect many of us, but you just never know what other emergency could arise. I believe it's better to err on the side of caution and to tolerate the rare 3am flash-flood alert than not to get another important emergency alert that could make the difference between life or death.

  2. I've also turned off the alerts. Unfortunately, flash floods warnings happen in DC *dozens* of times a year. I agree that if this system is going to work, flash flood warnings should not be included.

  3. Me, too! I've turned off alerts on my iphone. I don't want to be woken up in the middle of the night again by a flood alert that won't affect me in the slightest. It's like the boy who cried wolf.