Danger, Will Robinson!

After I posted yesterday’s piece on the WEA* system responsible for the cell phone Amber alerts I had some further thoughts. In particular, I was wondering what other sorts of messages one can expect to receive via this “service”. The FCC has a rather useless marketing page on the WEA. It says:

Alerts from WEA cover only critical emergency situations. Consumers will receive only three types of alerts:
1. Alerts issued by the President
2. Alerts involving imminent threats to safety or life
3. Amber Alerts

* According to the FCC’s website, “Wireless Emergency Alerts” is now the official name of the system, replacing the earlier “Commercial Mobile Alert System” and “Personal Localized Alerting Network” names.

We’ve already talked about the Amber Alerts; whether they really constitute “critical emergency situations” is pretty much a matter of opinion. Let’s take a look at the other two types.

“Alerts issued by the President.” I can’t find an official description of what situations might cause the president to send out a message. Both FEMA and NOAA phrase the category as “Presidential Alerts during a national emergency”. But again, that doesn’t really tell us much. Is the president really going to stop whatever he’s doing to send out a national text message “Just declared war on Russia. Bombs in five minutes! LOL!”? Well, OK, maybe Ronald Reagan would have, but really, what kind of national matters can be dealt with in a 90 character message?

“Imminent threats to safety or life” OK, I can get behind that concept. As I mentioned yesterday, the system was used during the Boston Marathon bombings. It was also used to send warnings during Hurricane Sandy’s assault on the East Coast.

According to NOAA, the National Weather Service will send messages for tsunamis, tornados, flash floods, hurricanes, typhoons, dust storms, extreme winds, blizzards, and ice storms. One hopes that they’ll do a better job of targeting their messages than the San Diego police did with Monday’s Amber Alert, which has apparently been received as far away as Seattle, Washington. Even if they are well-targeted, that could still amount to a heck of a lot of alerts in some areas, and timeliness hasn’t really been a consistent win for any government. I don’t know about you, but if I were outside shoveling three feet of snow off my driveway, and I was interrupted by an emergency alert about the previous night’s blizzard, I’d be pretty damn ticked off. Hell, even if it was a timely warning about the following blizzard, I’d be annoyed at the interruption.

All in all, I suspect that every time the capability is used there are going to be more people turning it off. Of course, you can’t turn off the Presidential Alerts. How long will it be before the rules are changed to require that no alerts can be turned off? After all, it’s a matter of life and death. And it’s for the children!

Oh, one additional note: I suggested yesterday that setting the phone’s Do Not Disturb functionality would prevent being awakened in the middle of the night by a WEA alert. Turns out that’s not the case. By design, such messages ignore your alerting preferences. Sleeping? Driving? Watching a play in a crowded theatre? Enjoying a tender moment with your spouses? Doesn’t matter. If the government thinks you need to know about a missing child, approaching tornado, or zombie invasion, by God, you’re going to hear about it. And no, you can’t change that aggravating alert sound to something less distracting either. Sounds like another good argument for turning your phone completely off when you’re not actually making a call.

Take comfort, though. FEMA, NOAA, and the FCC all assure us that your location won’t be tracked when you receive a WEA message. I’m sure we’re all relieved to hear that. After all, the government would never lie about what information they’re collecting about you and your movements, right?

2 thoughts on “Danger, Will Robinson!

  1. It scared the crap out of me. I’m in SF but on East Coast time. My phone is smart enough to know that, right? I turned off the amber alerts as soon as I could see well enough to type “how the hell do I turn off amber alerts” in google.

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    • Yeah, it’s done by targeting specific cellular towers. If your carrier supports WEA, you’ll get messages sent to the particular tower your phone is routing through, regardless of where your account is domiciled.

      Ugh, Amber Alert at 2am body time. Sorry to hear it. I hope the rest of your visit has been more peaceful.

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