Wireless carrier Sprint’s announcement last week that it would be the first U.S. carrier to offer Wireless Emergency Alerts quickly became fodder for conspiracy theorists, due in part to the mandatory nature of some of the notifications.
According to Sprint’s press release:
Wireless Emergency Alerts allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to accept and deliver warning messages to wireless networks from the president of the United States, the National Weather Service and state and local emergency operations centers. Sprint customers will be able to effectively and accurately receive warnings and safety information via text alerts to mobile phones that are equipped with the enabling software and based on their geographic location.
The service is available on a number of Sprint’s handsets — those with the necessary hardware — with a distinct alert tone, vibration cadence and inbox icon used to differentiate the alerts from standard text messages. While users can opt-out of alerts categorized as “Imminent Threats to Life” and “AMBER Alerts,” the “Presidential Alerts” are mandatory.
A use-case scenario given in the release describes a chemical spill near a stadium event:
An emergency message could be targeted to cell phones at a stadium event, informing attendees of where to go or what direction to drive following a nearby highway accident or chemical spill.
This location-based scenario is echoed in FEMA’s description of the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), which enables the Wireless Emergency Alerts.
A key differentiator of the IPAWS [Integrated Public Alert and Warning System] CMAS capability versus existing subscription-based text messaging alert services currently available in some localities is that the IPAWS CMAS will enable alert messages to be sent to any cell phone within range of a particular cellular communications towers. The CMAS also utilizes different communications channels and protocols in cellular systems which decrease the impact of network congestion on alert message delivery during times of emergency.
As business continuity professionals know, one of the most common problems faced during a crisis is communications capacity issues. By addressing this problem, the Wireless Emergency Alerts will almost certainly save lives and greatly reduce the impact of disasters.
Even so, this semi-mandatory Government initiative brought out the critics and conspiracy theorists, with some threatening to boycott Sprint — even though all four major carriers indicated they will participate in the program.
Government mistrust is not always unjustified, but those who actually think that this system is a tool for propaganda and fear mongering need to get a grip.
I just hope the lessons learned by the national Weather Service — people begin to ignore alerts if they are issued too frequently — will help guide FEMA in its use of the system.
Do you think the Wireless Emergency Alerts will be ineffective, overused or misused? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.