Abney & Associates Technology updates: Bumps in rollout of cellphone alerts in Washington
A system set up to send emergency alerts to thousands of cellphone users warning them of natural disasters and missing children has experienced problems during its rollout in Washington state, the News Tribune reported today. The mobile notification system has helped authorities find at least two missing children as
a result of Amber Alerts sent to cellphones in the state. But it also mistakenly warned people in the lowlands of Western Washington of a blizzard that was happening in the Cascade Mountains, and it alerted others in Western Washington of potential flash floods thousands of miles away, in Puerto Rico. Still, officials said, the weather warnings have saved countless people elsewhere in the country. The system is working, they said, despite the problems.
“To some people these things are annoying. But when you look at it as the big picture of saving lives, as a community as a whole, it’s the right thing to do,” said Ted Buehner, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Seattle. “These are
targeted for immediate, life-
threatening, hazardous events.”
In Connecticut last July, for example, a camp director got 29 children to safety after getting a tornado warning on her cellphone moments before the storm touched down where she and the campers had been. Tornado warnings in the Midwest also were responsible for saving many lives, Buehner said. Congress approved the national Wireless Emergency Alert system in 2006 to provide instant warnings from emergency agencies throughout the country. To get the word out, the system uses cellphone carriers to complement other alerts sent out on television and radio. But in a few cases, the system has confused both cellphone users and the emergency agencies in charge of implementing it, according to the News Tribune. Three of the eight messages sent in Washington state were sent too broadly, reaching people in the wrong areas. Two others went out before dawn, raising questions about what people were expected to do in the middle of the night once they received those alerts. Carri Gordon, the Amber Alert coordinator for the Washington State Patrol, said the rollout of the system was especially complicated.