• 08.22.13

The Story Behind Those Emergency Alerts On Your Cell Phone

The federal government can now send direct notifications to our mobile devices. The system could mean the difference between life and death, but must be used judiciously to be effective.

The Story Behind Those Emergency Alerts On Your Cell Phone
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

On August 4th, I nearly had a panic attack. I wasn’t the only one. People across California, Oregon, Nevada, and other states were treated to 10 seconds of an ear-splitting alarm tone that emerged from their cell phones. It was an unfamiliar, disturbing sound, but the news it was designed to disseminate was equally disturbing: Two children were abducted (one was later discovered to be dead) in San Diego, and authorities had sent the alert to people in locations they believed the abductor to be heading towards.


It was the first statewide alert for California since the federal Wireless Emergency Alerts program was created in 2012. TeleCommunication Systems, a company that has worked on emergency communications for 20 years, is one of the organizations behind these alerts.

Government organizations like FEMA decide what messages go out and when. TeleCommunication Systems runs the delivery mechanism that takes this feed of messages and ensures the network is in place to send them off to cell phones located in a specified area.

The alerts program has four types of notifications: Amber Alerts for missing kids; extreme threat to life and property alerts for disasters like hurricanes; test messages; and presidential-level alerts to be used for national emergencies, like possibly 9/11. The first three alerts listed here can be turned off–just go into your phone settings to do it–but the presidential alert has to remain on.

While the San Diego alert was the first time many people learned that the Wireless Emergency Alerts program existed, it’s actually very active. “Every day we do either messages that are either extreme threat [to life and property] alerts or Amber Alerts,” says Keith Bhatia, the vice president and general manager at TeleCommunication Systems.

When the U.S. was deciding how to deploy wireless alerts, the country had two options: cell broadcast and SMS. The country chose cell broadcast. “They wanted to make sure that any message wasn’t limited by any other platform or any delay,” says Bhatia. “An alert can get to a cell site, be issued immediately, and can be picked up immediately by handsets that can take these alerts.” Other markets, especially in Asia, have opted for SMS delivery, which is more convenient (and easier on the ears).

Not every handset is equipped to receive emergency alerts. While I heard about the Amber Alert as soon as it happened–I was in the room with someone whose phone started wailing–my iPhone 4 sat silently. “Some phones are capable and some aren’t,” explains Bhatia. “All phones into the market since 2012 come with wireless emergency alert software. It took awhile for phone manufacturers to enable capability to the phones.” But since many smartphones have a relatively short life, it won’t be long until the vast majority of phones have emergency alert capability.

The emergency alerts are a valuable service–I think most people would welcome an alert telling them that, say, a child has been abducted in their town, a tornado is coming their way, or an earthquake is about to hit in 10 seconds (California is developing an earthquake alert system, and Japan already has one). But activating alerts about missing children across multiple states risks alienating people, who may eventually just turn the alerts off if they become too frequent. Authorities will have to exhibit restraint for the system to work.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.