top of page
  • Writer's pictureDusty Weis

Lead Balloon Ep. 46 - Why Are Wireless Emergency Alerts on Your Phone So Terrible?

A ballistic missile false alarm in Hawaii prompts us to take a closer look at a perennially misused public safety tool.

On January 18, 2018, the entire State of Hawaii received an ear piercing alert on their cell phones.


"BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL."


Those with a keen memory will recall that the Aloha State was NOT, in fact, wiped off the map by a missile strike.


It was a false alarm.

But what it revealed about the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system should concern every strategic communicator.


Because while the WEA system has the potential to be a powerful lifesaving tool, it is routinely misused by emergency managers and misunderstood by the public.


With little to no federal oversight, the manner in which this system is used is left up to more than 1,600 local jurisdictions.


As a result, users are being bombarded with too many notifications that are not germane to their immediate safety, and that is conditioning us to ignore potentially life-saving alerts in the future.


So in this episode, we parse lessons from Hawaii's WEA SNAFU with Commander Bhavini Murthy, a medical epidemiologist and researcher with the U.S. Public Health Service, and Dr. John Anderton, the Associate Director for Communication at the Centers for Disease Control’s Office of Readiness and Response.


We learn from an expert on WEA messaging what jurisdictions nationwide are doing incorrectly. Dr. Jeanette Sutton is an Associate Professor in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the State University of New York at Albany.


And, Dusty works to instigate WEA reforms in his own backyard with Milwaukee County Supervisor Shawn Rolland.


By the way, if you've ever wondered what to do in the event of a nuclear missile strike, here are some resources from the CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/radiation/emergencies/index.htm



Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

Over the last decade, Americans have been conditioned to expect one of two things when they hear a Wireless Emergency Alert on their cell phone. One, we're all going to die, or two, I am about to be egregiously annoyed. That's what happened to about one and a half million residents and visitors the entire state of Hawaii on January 13th, 2018.


News Anchor:

There was panic in paradise today.


Dusty Weis:

At 8:07 in the morning local time, phones across the islands exploded with a dire warning.


News Reporter:

Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii, it said. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.


Dusty Weis:

At the same time, automated missile warnings were triggered on TV and radio stations.


TV Alert:

The US Pacific Command has detected a missile threat to Hawaii. A missile may impact on land or sea within minutes.


Dusty Weis:

And frightened Hawaiians rushed for cover.


Youtuber:

This is interesting. I just called my wife. They're at the park, so they're running back to the house right now.


Dusty Weis:

Or in many cases flailed around in panic because they didn't know what to do.


TikToker 1:

I don't even know where we go.


TikToker 2:

This is whack.


Dusty Weis:

Stricken adults forced children to climb into sewers, estranged lovers called one another to reconcile, parents had to choose which of their children to drive to what they believed to be their final minutes on Earth. Even actor Jim Carrey was prepared to meet his maker as he recounted on the Jimmy Kimmel Show.


Jim Carrey:

We had to say goodbye. I sat on the lanai and looked out at the ocean and all I was planning to do was close my eyes and be thankful because it's been a good ride.


Jimmy Kimmel:

What did you do when you found out that it was a fake missile test?


Jim Carrey:

Then I got pissed off and heads rolled.


Dusty Weis:

It was not an uncommon reaction to the revelation that the Doomsday alert was sent in error. That's right. Those with keen memories will recall that the state of Hawaii was not smitten from the face of the earth by a missile strike. A second message did in fact go out stating that the first message was sent in error 38 long, terrifying minutes after the initial ballistic missile alert went out.


Youtuber:

How do you screw that up? If you do screw that up, how do you not fix it immediately?


Dusty Weis:

We would eventually come to learn that the alert was sent out by a single employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency who through delusion, incompetence, procedural inadequacy, or some combination of the three confused an exercise with the real thing and earnestly believed there was a missile threat.


Disgraced Emergency Management Employee:

I was 100% sure that it was the right decision, that it was real. I was convinced that it was real.


Dusty Weis:

He was promptly fired, but this episode isn't about that. It's about what we can learn from this and other incidents like it about how the Wireless Emergency Alert system, a powerful life-saving tool that has the capability to communicate to virtually every American within minutes is woefully misused, undermanaged, and misunderstood, because with little federal oversight, how this system is used is left up to more than 1600 local jurisdictions, each of which gets to decide for itself. As a result, users are being bombarded with too many notifications that are not germane to their immediate safety, and that is conditioning us to ignore potentially life-saving alerts in the future.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

This is truly about life and death in some cases, and making a decision to use it in a way that is not going to keep people engaged in the long term is potentially really devastating.


Dusty Weis:

I'm Dusty Weis. From Podcamp Media, this is Lead Balloon, a podcast about important tales from the world of PR, marketing, and branding told by the well-meaning communications professionals who live there.


Thanks for tuning in. It's funny, the Wireless Emergency Alert system is not one that we normally think about unless we are A, rolling our eyes at it, or B, there is an actual life-threatening emergency. But as we worked to put this episode together, at one point our editor, Matt, turned to me and he said, "This story is insane. It's like we're working on a John Oliver episode." Yes, it's a little bit nerdy, but it's important, damn it.


So buckle your seatbelt because I promise you, the more you learn about Wireless Emergency Alerts, WEAs or WEAs as they're called, the more you're going to wonder why major steps have not been taken to do something about it yet. If that sort of quasi journalism for strategic communicators is your thing, please do make sure that you're following Lead Balloon in your favorite podcast app. If you know a fellow communicator who's going to raise an eyebrow over what we discuss here, send them a link to this one because I bet they will appreciate it.


The conversation that we are having today is all too relevant in light of the horrific devastation that we've seen in the wildfires in Maui last month. There are serious questions about the emergency communications that could have saved lives in the Hawaiian town of Lahaina.


I hope it doesn't come across as crass that we're starting our conversation five years ago in Hawaii with that ultimately benign missile scare because that missile scare started a national dialogue about this including action from Congress, and there are important lessons that we can take away from that incident as strategic communicators. I am certainly not the only one who thinks that what.


Commander Bhavini Murthy:

What I was really interested in is what went through people's mind when they received this alert before they found out that it was sent an error. I was curious about what people's immediate reactions were from a preparedness and response standpoint. This is what actually prompted me to think about this research project in the first place.


Dusty Weis:

Commander Bhavini Murthy is a medical epidemiologist and researcher with the US Public Health Service who saw in the Hawaiian missile scare a chance to better understand the thought process of people who receive warnings on their smartphones. Analyzing timestamped Twitter posts from before and after the ballistic missile warning was retracted, her team identified some key themes in the way that Hawaiians were tweeting about their imminent demise.


Some posts simply attempted to come to terms with or disseminate the information. Many sought to verify the threat by tweeting at authorities about it. I think the best category that Commander Murthy identified in her analysis was the one she dubs emotional reaction.


Commander Bhavini Murthy:

Emotional reaction we defined as any emotions such as expressing shock, fear, panic, or terror that we were really able to capture with the immediate reactions on the tweets posted.


Dusty Weis:

Confronted with the fact that doom was imminent, how did people react? How did they do? Were they processing it well?


Commander Bhavini Murthy:

Here are the example tweets. "There is a missile threat here right now, guys. I love you all and I'm scared as..." expletive deleted. Another one is, "Woke up and started crying after seeing the Hawaii missile alert. Called my parents and bawled my eyes out because I was so worried."


Dusty Weis:

Commander Murthy's research is important here because it illustrates that social media messaging can serve an important function even in the height of a crisis.


Commander Bhavini Murthy:

I do think it is a critical tool that we have to communicate with mass audiences. Our findings show that social media is used to verify information in near real time and that public health agencies can harness social media to convey timely information.


Dusty Weis:

But more importantly, it shows us that even one high profile mistake by emergency management communicators can undermine faith in Wireless Emergency Alerts and the system in general. In her analysis of tweets sent after the missile warnings were retracted, Commander Murthy says she found expressions of anger, denunciation, and mistrust of authority.


Commander Bhavini Murthy:

It's important for authorities at all levels of government to establish and maintain trust and credibility to ensure that the public does not ignore important public health messages.


Dusty Weis:

One thing that didn't help the loss of credibility for Hawaiian Emergency Management here, the Wireless Emergency Alert told people to seek shelter but didn't explain where or how to do that. Indeed, Commander Murthy's analysis also revealed that a lot of people just don't know what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. She poured through many tweets from users who didn't grow up in the duck and cover era and didn't have a clue how to protect themselves.


Dr. John Anderton:

You mentioned duck and cover, a very famous campaign from 50 or more years ago. The current expression is get inside, stay inside, stay tuned. You could also say get educated in front of that due to a societal erosion of understanding of the nature of the threat and what you can or should do.


Dusty Weis:

Dr. John Anderton is the associate director for communication at the Centers for Disease Control's Office of Readiness and Response and has been working with Commander Murthy to promote her findings. Ultimately, he says it's important to wrap our hands around the lessons we learned from Hawaii's WEA snafu because people have the ability and inclination to opt out of receiving Wireless Emergency Alerts. They will do that if they lose faith in the system or find them annoying or irrelevant.


Added to that, Commander Murthy's report notes that Hawaii's ballistic missile alert checklist did not include a step to notify a public information officer, media, or other stakeholders during an incident, and there was no credentialed two person requirement to approve emergency alerts before they went out.


Dr. John Anderton:

This was five years ago, and I really hope that the lessons learned from this are something that local emergency managers are able to find and think through and address holes in a system that was brand new then but now is hopefully more established to frustrate any opportunities of things like this happening again.


Dusty Weis:

It doesn't sound like there's been any overarching national set of guidelines developed or issued for the deployment of these messages.


Dr. John Anderton:

I would love to know that. I know that the emergency alert system was set up a number of years ago, but that's probably an FCC type question since it involves broadcast specific information. I'd like to know the answer if you ever happen to hear it.


Dusty Weis:

Hang on a second. Let's decode what we just heard here for those of you who aren't fluent in senior federal government spokesman. When I asked Dr. Anderton about federal guidelines for how Wireless Emergency Alerts are used, from his seat as a disaster readiness spokesman for the CDC, he said-


Dr. John Anderton:

That's probably an FCC type question, and I'd like to know the answer if you ever happen to hear it.


Dusty Weis:

Which translates to not my dumpster, not my fire, but I sure can smell it from where I do my job. And so we come to my old foil, the FCC, because I did dig a little bit deeper on this and it turns out it's not the Department of Homeland Security, it's not the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the CIA who oversee the nation's Wireless Emergency Alert system. Oh, no. It is the perennially toothless, technologically stunted Federal Communications Commission in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And it turns out oversee is kind of a strong word for what they do here.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

Basically it was a program with a mandate without funding. Every organization uses WEAs a little bit differently and are trained or not trained a little bit differently. We have a lot of discrepancies across different organizations.


Dusty Weis:

Because while the FCC and FEMA provide suggestions, developing WEA policies is left to the more than 1600 federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial authorities who each get to set their own rules. Oh, also, there's no requirement for cell phone carriers to deliver the alerts. It's completely voluntary on their part. My friend, we have just dipped a toe in.

And so coming up after the break, we go to an authority on why this lifesaving system is as broken as it is, learn what we can do about it as strategic communicators, and I take you along to one municipality where we fixed Wireless Emergency Alerts we hope. That's all coming up here on Lead Balloon.


This is Lead Balloon, and I'm Dusty Weis. I promise by the end of this show I am going to leave you with some sense of closure and not just point out every way in which the Wireless Emergency Alert system is maddeningly broken. But I do have another story that I want to tell that even more clearly illustrates my point. Unlike the hubbub in Hawaii five years ago, this one you probably didn't hear about.


It was January 26th, 2022 on one of the coldest nights of the year in my home of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. During a police stop at 2:00 AM a passenger ran off into the night and the cops began to comb the area. An hour later, a deputy saw a man crawl out of a garbage bin, radioed for backup, and was promptly shot in the chest and arm.

The deputy would go on to survive the incident, but authorities knew that they were dealing with an armed and dangerous suspect, and so they sent out an emergency alert to one and a half million Milwaukee County residents a little before 4:00 in the morning. My wife literally woke up screaming. Those alerts are so jarring.


After reading the alert, my adrenaline was up and there was no way I was going to get back to sleep, so I went downstairs to pace the front hall and I guess presumably defend the house from armed intruders. When my head cleared up a little, I realized when I read the alert more carefully that the incident was more than six miles from my house.

Here is exactly what it said.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

64th slash Dixon shelter in place. Fleeing suspect armed and dangerous. Call 911 if anyone suspicious in the area is observed. Suspect described as male slash black, skinny build, black t-shirt, no coat. In my evaluation of it, this message doesn't do a great job, but I need to start by telling you what a message should include.


Dusty Weis:

The person trying her darnedest to be nice as she picks through the jargon filled incoherent piece of PIO speak is Dr. Jeannette Sutton. She's an associate professor in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the State University of New York at Albany and an expert in disaster communication technology. She also runs thewarnroom.com and the Twitter account @warningrater where she critiques WEAs that have gone out, grades them, and suggests how they might have been done better.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

A complete message will include the name of the source, the name of the hazard, the location of the hazard, what people should do in response to that hazard to protect themselves, and something about the time. Hopefully they also include something about what the hazard is doing at the time that they're notifying them about it so people understand what's happening more than just there is a hazard they're being told about.


Dusty Weis:

Dr. Sutton says these are more than just best practices. These are empirically proven methods of getting people to take action that saves lives. In the case of our late night awakening in Milwaukee County a year and a half ago, her point is not just that the message was poorly written, it's that it never should have been sent in the first place.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

The first thing that I want to point out about this message is this is not a message that is designed for a warning. It's a law enforcement message that's a be on the lookout message. Most of the time when we send out warning messages, they are for some sort of an imminent threat. Something is moving very, very quickly. We are very certain that there's going to be an impact. Those impacts will be severe, and you need to do something to protect yourself from this incoming hazard.


In this case, a be on the lookout message for some fleeing suspect who is armed and dangerous may be quite dangerous to those individual few people that that person may have contact with. But in general, it is not something that a broad area, a broad population in the middle of the night needs to be woken for because it is not an imminent threat to life and safety to this broad population that would be alerted.


Dusty Weis:

Right. If I'm living at the corner of 64th and Dixon, it's probably a good time for me to go downstairs and lock my door.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

I was reading it and noticing that there's a lot of stuff that's missing. We don't know who's sending this message. We know that it was sent at 3:50 in the morning because it shows up on your screen, but if for some reason that particular alert stays active for a number of hours and you travel into the area where the alert is active, you could get it much later and it could trigger your phone. We don't know what time that this is occurring.


Those are the top issues related to what's missing from the message, but the timing of sending it is really problematic, especially for you when you were woken in the middle of the night and there's very little that you can do to help.


Dusty Weis:

It's not like I was out driving around, that I could be on the lookout for this person.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

Right. Most people probably are not at 3:50 in the morning and on the lookout for a person like this. The description of the person is pretty vague.


Dusty Weis:

But the incident wasn't over here in Milwaukee. After the alert that went out prior to 4:00 AM, deputies found the suspect dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at 5:30 AM. At 8:30, the sheriff had a press conference with that update, and at 11:30 AM all of our phones went off again.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

In all caps it says, "Add longer WEA message here. Remove this if no longer message exists." That particular message is an indication that the person who is sitting at the keyboard pushed the wrong button.


Dusty Weis:

That essentially says, type message here.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

Yeah.


Dusty Weis:

As someone again who is expert in this area, does that smack a view to a department that is well rehearsed in the use of this technology?


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

Probably not, but it's also not unusual.


Dusty Weis:

This happens a lot.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

Well, the software that is used by people who sit at the WEA desk is not easy to use. It's not intuitive. There's a lot of training that's required for someone to use it successfully, especially under conditions where it's moving very, very quickly. And you have to do it right the first time.


This particular message that you're looking at here where it's very obviously a text field that was copied into their alerting software or not removed from their alerting software, that's a big oops. It looks really bad for the department, but boy, that must've been really annoying for you as the message receiver when your phone started blowing up.


Dusty Weis:

In fact, it was. Finally, the third message here in the series that I sent you, if you would again perform for us say a dramatic reading. Literally I had just cleared the message from my phone and my adrenaline was coming back down and then it goes off again and I'm like, "What? What? What?" This one came through.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

This is again a public safety alert and with the yellow triangle and the exclamation point, and this one says, "All clear at 64th and Dixon. Shelter in place order removed." My-


Dusty Weis:

Because this is an audio medium, I want to describe your demeanor here, because to me right now you're very reminiscent of my second grade teacher when I declared that I've created a sculpture out of clay and paint in the middle of your desk. You look a little tired, but still very patient and very willing to help encourage growth.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

I think that's a great way of describing it because so many people do lack training in how to do this really well. In this particular case, this message is clearly indicating to the people who had received the previous message at 3:50 in the morning that they should now come out of their shelter that they've been sheltering in. What time did this one come out?


Dusty Weis:

This was about 11:30 in the morning, so three hours after the sheriff had held an all-clear press conference, six hours after the suspect was found deceased.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

Right. Okay. Yeah, my demeanor, I'm nodding my head as I'm starting to put together all of the pieces about the timeline here. Ideally, a message that is an all clear telling people that it's safe to come out of their places that you've asked them to shelter in would've come at the time when the incident was ended, that it was truly safe. Waiting until after that press conference suggests that they thought that people didn't get the news from the press conference.


Dusty Weis:

Or I'll posit a second theory here. They just plumb forgot. And then a little while later someone was like, "Hey, didn't we send out a WEA about this? Oh, oh, we should let people know that they can come out now."


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

That's also possible. I obviously don't know the history of how everything went down, however we could make some guesses that that might be true.


Dusty Weis:

Now, it's worth noting at this point that WEA technology does enable message senders to specifically geotarget their messages, to essentially draw a shape on a map and say, only cell phones in this area will get the message. Now, I know the technology's not perfect. There's some spillover and it only works for new-ish phones, but Milwaukee County authorities caught some flack because they didn't do this. They just put it on blast for everyone in the county.


Their counter argument was, sure, there was a localized threat from this armed person who did shoot a cop. Isn't it worth inconveniencing one and a half million Milwaukeeans if it means that we have a slightly better chance of catching this person? Dr. Sutton, what is the downside of sending WEAs about something that is not a large scale threat to public safety?


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

Well, there's a couple of things. The primary thing is that there is a real concern that people are going to turn off their messages because it's totally possible for people to go into their settings in their phones and turn off different kinds of alerts that are built into their devices. Making a decision to send a be on the lookout message at 3:50 in the morning is going to affect your ability to communicate to people at 3:50 in the afternoon when severe weather is rolling through and people are at extreme risk.


Dusty Weis:

Certainly Dr. Sutton's insight here is more than just academic, because I can tell you that after being awakened at 4:00 in the morning, my wife immediately pulled out her phone and deactivated her WEAs. She wasn't alone.


Shawn Rolland:

The other thing that was problematic that we saw in some of the social media posts and the emails that were coming into my inbox where people wondering and suggesting and sharing, how can I remove this emergency management alert from my phone? I don't want to get this anymore. I don't want to wake up at 4:00 AM to some emergency alert that's not relevant to me.


Dusty Weis:

Shawn Rolland serves as a member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. In fact, he's my representative on the county board because I am exactly the type of white middle-class suburban dad who pens a strongly worded letter to my local elected official when something peeves me.


In his day job, appropriately enough, Shawn works as a senior communication strategist at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. As a result of the outcry from my fellow citizens and me, Shawn and his county board colleagues launched an official inquiry into Milwaukee County's management of its Wireless Emergency Alerts.


Shawn Rolland:

When you do the look back and you're publicly sharing, how did you perform, I have found rarely that somebody will say, "We made a mistake." Right?


Dusty Weis:

Right.


Shawn Rolland:

You can either raise the temperature, raise the stakes, and start threatening people or talking about what kinds of ramifications should happen, or can you have conversations behind the scenes that are more focused on the future the next time? I think that lowers the temperature.


We don't have to cast blame. I don't need to have anybody resign in this case or anything, but the question does become, the next time, would we really do this? Would this net be cast so wide? That was revealing to them, and it was helpful, I think, in the way that they have decided to do emergency messages going forward.


Dusty Weis:

Well, I'll say this, after the report that you and your colleagues requested, and there was a fair amount of media hubbub that kicked up over this particular emergency alert, I would say that both the irrelevancy of WEAs that I receive in Milwaukee County and the frequency with which I receive them has both gone down. I would imagine that there have been some substantive changes behind the scenes as to how this process is managed.


Shawn Rolland:

Right. To me as communicator, it's all about relevance and trust. We have to have knowledgeable officials who understand how the system works, who understand how the technology works, leveraging it to deliver the right message at the right time to the right people. As a communications person, I think that's what we're all trained to do.


Dusty Weis:

That's it. That's stratcomm 101.


Shawn Rolland:

That's right. It started with just getting really crystal clear on process, defining the right time and place to use the technology, defining who makes that call. How expansive is the group? One of the things that we learned as part of the analysis was that there was a much wider group of people who could trigger the alert.


Then maybe I don't want to put words in people's mouths, but now there's a much narrower group of people.I think that I don't know that the emergency management folks are going to come out and say, "We did the analysis and decided to make that change," but at the end of the day, they made that change.


I know there was a sheriff's department, I believe, sergeant on the scene in the West Allis incident who personally requested that that alert go out to everyone. I'm putting myself into the shoes of a sheriff sergeant who is in this emotionally charged situation where one of their brothers is down.


Dusty Weis:

Doesn't know if he's going to make it.


Shawn Rolland:

Every police officer probably within who knows how far is all trying to find this person. Emotions are high. I think that's a time and a place where people can act emotionally as opposed to just follow a process. It's not to necessarily say anything negative about anybody, but it's just a question of what's the best process that if you took all the emotion out of the situation, how would we want the situation to work out in a case like this?

The other thing besides narrowing the group of folks who could trigger the alerts, there was much more rigor in terms of practicing and training and going through scenarios that's been done in the months since then, which is great. I mean that's what you would want an emergency response team to do.


There's also a much greater understanding of the technology that they use, how expansive it is. In the months that have gone by, the technology has caught up where more of the cell phones, you can actually target them within the geofence as opposed to before where you couldn't. So the technology's helping to catch up too.


The county also worked closely with the state's emergency manager to better define their best practices, to understand the technology, and just better define their processes. Ultimately I think that has helped because yeah, you're right, in the 18 months since that happened, there hasn't been another emergency alert that has been triggered by the county.


I'm sure there have been lots of other incidents that have been weighed, and folks decided that people aren't in an emergency. There's not a reason to at least notify a million people or plus. I think ultimately the learnings and the technology have helped us to create a better solution that's more relevant and more trustworthy, and hopefully people will decide that they want to keep it on their phone and not bail out on a system that can help them out sometime.


Dusty Weis:

However, even as we've made strides toward improving our Wireless Emergency Alert policies here in Milwaukee County, some of the other 1600 jurisdictions that use WEA are backsliding. Just last month, in fact, the Minnesota Department of Transportation announced that it will be begin using WEAs to alert citizens of major road closures due to traffic crashes or inclement weather.


Is it relevant to everyone? Kind of. But not everyone drives or is going to need to know about a road closure right this second. But then we get to the question of is it life-threatening? The answer is not under most circumstances. That's exactly the point where some mandates or guidance from the FCC on how the system should be used could go a long way. But Dr. Jeannette Sutton from the University of New York Albany says that's probably not going to happen.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

There is no one who is putting into place particular policies that have to be followed, and I don't expect that those policies are going to come for a couple of reasons. One is that a lot of people have signed up to use WEA, but they don't actively use it because they're so afraid they're going to do it wrong.


We have a lot more organizations that have signed up to use it than that actually do use it. By not putting boundaries around when they can use it, it almost gives them more freedom to use it in the future when they see that there's the time to do so, kind of an encouragement without encouraging them to do it.


But in some jurisdictions, this is literally the only way they have to reach people because they haven't purchased any other software for people to opt into. For small areas that have been authorized to use WEA, it is their one channel to get to people. And so if one local jurisdiction has decided that this is the way they're going to broadcast their announcements. People become accustomed to getting broadcast announcements within a particular time of day, and they're just used to that. To tell them they can no longer use this tool that they've gotten used to using is taking something out of their toolkit. I honestly don't think that there are going to be any policies.


Dusty Weis:

Other ideas have been floated for improving the WEAs system, building up the geotargeting capability, including images with the alerts, automatically translating the messages into other languages, or enabling message senders to deactivate that ear-piercing alert sound for less serious messages. These all sound like common sense improvements, but that's where we get to the real kicker here, because without an act of Congress, there is no way to compel cell phone carriers to improve their emergency alert infrastructure.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

Basically, it was a program with a mandate without funding. The FCC is a partner with the telecom industry and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It's all partnerships between all of these.


Dusty Weis:

So nothing is mandatory.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

Correct.


Dusty Weis:

The cell phone companies, the service providers who ultimately have the responsibility of delivering these alerts are not required to do so, nor do they have any incentive to do it better.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

It is not mandatory. They participate in a voluntary way, and not all cell phone companies do participate. The large ones do. It's a good symbol of social responsibility demonstrating goodwill towards people, but they don't make any money off of the system. My perception is they're a little bit reluctant to do things that are going to cost them money to make improvements to the system.


That makes sense because it does require tremendous resources to coordinate across cell towers that are across the country in all kinds of really hard to reach places, and then all of the technology in each of the different devices.


Dusty Weis:

The FCC occasionally opens up public comment periods for new rules that pertain to WEAs for whatever that's worth, but absent any real mechanism for top-down change, Dr. Sutton says she started doing what she does to try to make best practices available to local jurisdictions that work hands-on with the WEA system. Much like I started with my county supervisor, if you want to see sensible policies adopted, your best bet is probably to start local as well.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

I don't honestly know how far it goes by screaming into the Twitter void. Maybe it affects the local decision-making about people are turning it off because they don't find these messages to be useful or effective. Maybe it is writing to your local mayor and asking them to reconsider the policies that they use at the local level on when a WEA will be issued, because just as all disaster is local, all warnings are local, and all warnings are political.


I truly believe that all warnings are political because the messages that are issued, the person that it reflects on is the local elected official. If the emergency manager who's been hired by that elected official makes that official look bad, then somebody's job is on the line. And so it's very political. It becomes an issue of how something is said by whom to whom at what time.


If there's blow back in response to a poorly worded message issued at the wrong time, someone's going to hear about it. Ultimately, the person who was working in Hawaii when that ICBM alert went out, they lost their job. The policies can be made at the local level about when to issue a WEA and when to use other channels that are available. That includes opt-in messaging, social media, reverse 911 phone calls, the weather radio, when a siren's going to be used.


There's a lot of different tools that are available, and knowing ahead of time, at least having a plan for when they're going to use different tools is really important. My intention is to get more information from emergency managers about how they make those decisions. You may not think that it really makes a difference, that it's just going to go out to your local group, but the downstream effects is that people will lose their lives because they don't have a warning that should be coming to their phone.


This is truly about life and death in some cases. Making a decision to use it in a way that is not going to keep people engaged in the longterm is potentially really devastating.


Dusty Weis:

I think that you're absolutely right on that, and I think that it's a lot better to have that discussion before rather than in the wake of an emergency that costs lives. That's why I wanted to have it with you. It has been incredibly gratifying to get to have this conversation.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton from the University of New York Albany driving force behind thewarnroom.com and the Twitter account @warningrater, valuable resources for those of us in strategic communication or local emergency management. Thank you so much for joining us on this episode of Lead Balloon.


Dr. Jeannette Sutton:

You're welcome. Thanks for having me.


Dusty Weis:

So, there you have it, a comprehensive overview of why Wireless Emergency Alerts often suck, why the federal government that oversees them nonetheless can't do anything right now to make it better, and how that is going to endanger lives unless we do something about it at a local level. Here in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, we used public outcry over a particularly bad set of alerts to enact some improved local policies. Now if we can only do that in about 1600 other jurisdictions nationwide, we'll be all set.


Thanks are due as well to my county supervisor, Shawn Rolland, for joining us and for taking the initiative as a local elected official on this one. Additional thanks to our guest, Commander Bhavani Murthy from the US Public Health Service, and Dr. John Anderton from the Office of Readiness and Response at the Centers for Disease Control.


You may be chagrined to hear that FEMA and the FCC are conducting a nationwide test of the Wireless Emergency Alert system this fall. On Wednesday, October 4th at 2:20 PM Eastern Time, you will be subjected to one of my favorite noises in the world. When you hear it, just try to let that serve as a reminder to tune into the latest episode of Lead Balloon, which will have dropped the day prior.


I'll end on this. The radio waves that carry cell phone signals, TV and radio also, in America, those radio waves are considered the property of the American people, and telecommunications companies lease the right to broadcast on their piece of the spectrum. Now, decades ago, TV and radio stations were required to do all kinds of unfunded public service in order to maintain their license, including educational programming, including equal time for opposing political views.


As far as I'm concerned, that's a model that we should turn to when it comes to Wireless Emergency Alerts. You want to make billions as a cell phone service provider, AT&T, Verizon, then pony up to make these emergency alerts more of a public service. There we go. Nerd rant over. Okay.


Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production services for businesses. Our podcast studios are located in the heart of beautiful downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but we work with brands all over North America. Podcampmedia.com.


I was the writer and story editor for this episode, Will Henry with research, dialogue editing, and sound engineering, Matt Covarrubius with additional dialogue editing and sound engineering. Music for this episode was by Midnight Daydream, Bellodrone, Cast of Characters, Featherland, Ghost Beatz, and Material Gurl. Until the next time, folks, thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.



213 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page