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How emergency alerts fail us, and how we can fix them

A misguided alert reveals a critical opportunity to upgrade our emergency messaging system.

It’s become part of modern life: The simultaneous jump of everyone in the room, the signature chime, and the grating vibrations while people reach for pockets and purses. We’ve become accustomed to the country’s emergency alert system, intended to ensure our safety via smartphone. But when it was used to find a bombing suspect in New York City, after an explosion injured 27, people reported feeling helpless, confused, and angry. Clearly, the way we receive and absorb emergency messages is in need of a technological overhaul.

As the next-generation version of the Emergency Broadcast System—those screeching tones you used to hear on your TV or radio—the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system was launched in 2012 as a way to ping smartphones with life-threatening reports from the National Weather Service or Amber Alerts about child abductions. But lately, cities have been using it for much more than flash flood warnings and missing children.

New York might have been the first to treat the alert like a digital age wanted poster, but it’s certainly not the first to issue a non-weather alert. After the Boston Marathon bombings, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency sent out a “shelter in place” order to residents, which is similar to the one Chelsea residents received last night after the blast. Los Angeles used the system just a few weeks ago to issue a citywide “all clear” after the shooting scare at LAX.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said that today’s message was “very helpful” to the investigation and that the city will use the system again. The suspect was in custody just a few hours after the alert went out, so preliminary analysis of this action might infer this kind of messaging was indeed effective.

But it’s frustrating that especially in an age where social media can convey so much information, the most critical emergency messages are reduced to a few text-only, jargon-laced phrases. As New Yorkers saw today, the space was so limited, the message was subjected to some unfortunate and rather tone-deaf edits.

Today’s alert, in fact, illustrates everything that’s wrong about the system. The message is poorly written and missing critical information, like why this man was even wanted. For those of us used to getting more nuanced information like this on Twitter, we had to wonder: Why is the message so short? No photo? “9-1-1”?

As Motherboard’s Mark Harris explained in a fantastic story just a few weeks ago, the FCC recently tried to expand the messages from its 90-character, text-only limit to 360 characters with embedded links, which was fought by carriers. Apple and Verizon submitted statements that claimed too many people clicking through links (or dialing a hyperlinked phone number, hence the “9-1-1”) would overwhelm their networks.

The way the messages are geotargeted is also incredibly imprecise, writes Harris: The carriers are literally drawing circles on maps to blanket all the phones in that area. Meaning that the emergency messages often are dispersed to people who aren’t affected by the emergency at all, which makes people more likely to ignore them.

How a simple text-based WEA alert could be expanded to include a map and button to send tips.
CMU/DHS via Motherboard

And that’s the biggest problem with the alert system. If you, the intended recipient, find it annoying, you can toggle your phone settings to turn alerts off. This will silence the emergency warnings and the Amber Alerts. (You won’t be able to turn off the presidential warnings, which is a special type of message saved for when the meteor is about to obliterate Earth. It’s never been used yet, but in that case they might as well just send a link to this video instead.)

It turns out giving more information might make people pay attention. A 2014 study commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security showed that more characters and the inclusion of hyperlinks may make people more likely to take protective action, faster. So it behooves emergency management leadership to create and disperse messages that people will find more useful.

There’s one emergency warning message that might soon become much more familiar to certain Americans—and it’s giving crisis communicators a chance to design something better.

For the past few years, seismologists have been testing an earthquake early warning system—or EEW, for the geologically inclined—in the Western U.S. When an earthquake strikes, reporting stations can quickly corroborate the event with each other and alert cities before the shaking starts. The idea is that with enough advanced notice, major metropolitan areas will have time to do things like halt transportation systems, shut down energy facilities, and tell residents to drop, cover, and hold on.

Early warning apps, like this proposed one for California, can show the location, distance, and intensity of an imminent earthquake
Images by Art Center College of Design and Foxio

In countries like Japan and Mexico, smartphone-based EEW systems have been proven to reduce injuries or deaths, provided that people take the proper precautions. But the WEA system is actually not fast enough for an earthquake, which needs to get its warning out in about six seconds. This introduces another challenge for how to share this kind of nuanced information, fast.

That job is falling to Timothy and Deanna Sellnow, professors in the Nicholson School of Communication at the University of Central Florida, who specialize in crisis communication. Working on the U.S.’s earthquake early warning system as well as messages for Homeland Security, they’ve developed a set of best practices for emergency messaging which is currently being tested. Their tool is helping to guide the design, content, and even the type of alert sound that warning systems might make. And they’re also looking at how to reach all audiences, from those who don’t have phones, to disabled and elderly citizens.

It’s not just a matter of apprehending terrorism suspects. Especially in a world where extreme weather events are happening more frequently, and cities need to communicate risks that have never been experienced by residents before, striking that balance between immediacy and information will be critical for emergency teams, especially when lives are at stake. That may mean completely changing the way they talk to us.