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People who study emergency alerts have a big problem with FEMA’s presidential texts

People who study emergency alerts have a big problem with FEMA’s presidential texts
[Photos: Joyce N. Boghosian/The White House/Flickr; Agê Barros/Unsplash]

Yesterday, cell phones were chucked into lakes and rivers across the land when a “U up?” text from President Donald Trump appeared on people’s screens. In actuality, the alert, which cannot be opted out of, was FEMA conducting a nationwide test of its Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system—basically a mobile version of the emergency alerts that occasionally interrupt your stories on radio and TVs.

The test was meant to ensure that the WEA system is an effective means of warning the public about national emergencies. However, University of Colorado Denver researcher Hamilton Bean—an associate professor in the communication department and an expert in WEA technology— says texts and alerts can actually make a bad situation worse by delaying action. Turns out that when people get an emergency text from the president, they tend to freak out just a little bit and start digging around for more information instead of, say, running for cover.

According to Bean, while WEA messages are useful in spreading the word about impending doom, they can spark so-called “milling behavior,” which is apparently the technical term for standing around and googling instead of seeking safety. That can lead to serious problems when it comes to reacting quickly to what Bean calls “rapid onset emergencies,” like nuclear or radiological events.

“Depending on the nature of a hazard, that response delay, that milling or searching behavior, can result in harm,” he said in a statement.

That, of course, is a problem that no amount of test texting will resolve, since Bean’s research suggests that WEA messages don’t overcome people’s “preconceived notions of hazards and reduce milling behavior.” So the next time you get a text from the president, run first—then Google.

Bean led a study of the public warning messages, which was published in 2015 by the journal Review of Communication. You can read it here.

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