A Brief History Of Emergency Alerts On Your Phone

A Brief History Of Emergency Alerts On Your Phone

As I sit here, in my calm, non-snowpocalpysed city reading Twitter, there’s one definite theme emerging from snowbound New Yorkers: alcohol is a good coping mechanism! But also, everyone is getting unsolicited alerts about the weather on their phones. Here’s why.

Although it might seem natural in a post-Yo world that your phone will tell you about emergency stuff without you asking it, the mechanism by which the government tells everyone to stay inside is relatively new.

The system is called Wireless Emergency Alert, and it’s a collaboration between a bunch of federal agencies to send you emergency messages. Surprisingly, for a project involving technology and federal cooperation, it also works pretty well! A bill was passed authorising the FCC to develop the standards for WEA in 2006, and the system has been fully operational since 2012.

Basically, WEA can send you four types of messages from a bunch of different federal agencies: extreme weather warnings, local emergencies, AMBER (child abduction) alerts, and Presidential emergency messages. (Fittingly, that means that if Russia ever declares war on the US, you’ll learn about it in a 90-character blip on your phone.)

The messages are 90 characters long, and delivered to any WEA-capable phone within a certain radius. The messages look a lot like texts, but don’t come over the normal SMS channel – rather, they’re a blanket broadcast from the cell tower. WEA messages are turned on by default, but if you mess around deep enough in your settings, you can disable them if you really want to (although you’ll never be able to block Presidential missives).

The WEA system is a big improvement over conventional emergency alert systems (read: TV and radio) because of the active nature of the alert. It’s a safe bet that you’re not checking the TV (or radio, hah) during the day, but you probably look at your phone too many times to count.

That said, the system isn’t foolproof. During one of its first major outings, a New York blizzard in November 2013, not everyone got the messages. At the time, most iPhones didn’t support WEA messages, something that Apple changed with iOS 6.

Still, even with its flaws, the WEA system is impressive. Not only is it a sterling piece of public-private-sector cooperation, but it’s one of the most comprehensive and advanced public early-warning systems in the world. Not that it’ll be much consolation to the New Yorkers trying to remember how to dig a snow cave tonight, of course.

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