Staff Columnist

Flee, don't search, when cellphones buzz

Inaugural 'Presidential Alert' draws unnecessary suspicion

A test text message of the Presidential Alert, National Wireless Emergency Alert System is seen on a mobile phone Oct. 3, 2018. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
A test text message of the Presidential Alert, National Wireless Emergency Alert System is seen on a mobile phone Oct. 3, 2018. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Had there been an actual emergency … we would have taken time to Google it.

Where were you Wednesday when mobile phones blared with the country’s first “Presidential Alert,” a test of the National Wireless Emergency Alert system? I was in a downtown restaurant with a co-worker, anxiously awaiting the arrival of my food (I’d skipped breakfast) and pondering the prospect of dropping a few quarters in a pinball machine.

My phone wasn’t the first to alarm. Around the room, eyes widened in surprise, back pockets and purses were emptied. The buzzing cacophony rose, joined by a few giggles and grunts of disgust. We all read, “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” And, more quickly than it began, it ended; phones shoved back in bags and pockets.

But, according to field experts, had the alarm signaled an actual national emergency, most of us wouldn’t have taken shelter or took off at a trot. We would have kept our phones in our hands and searched for more information.

“Researchers consistently find that WEA messages grab attention and spur people to seek additional and confirming information. However, depending on the nature of a hazard, that response delay, that milling or searching behavior, can result in harm,” said Dr. Hamilton Bean, an associate professor in the University of Colorado-Denver communications department who served as lead researcher on a federally funded report on Wireless Emergency Alerts: “Disaster warnings in your pocket: How audiences interpret mobile alerts for an unfamiliar hazard.”

Bean and a team of researchers began studying WEA messages in 2012 as the system was just being rolled out across the U.S. Their findings are a part of several studies. Namely, the researchers are trying to determine what will both catch attention and spur potentially lifesaving action.

Promising enhancements include longer messages, about 1,400 characters in length — the current system is capped at 90 — and inclusion of an official link to more detailed information. People may still take time to click and read, but they’d save time by not searching.

The Federal Communications Commission also is considering inclusion of multimedia content — maps, photos, etc. — that could immediately serve more information, and better integration with existing social media channels.

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A host of possibilities is included in a book by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, which was published earlier this year. While the book will set you back about $50, an earlier Consensus Study Report is available free of charge.

Regardless of what the future holds, we will all be along for the ride. While the government allows individuals to opt out of localized Amber and weather alerts by adjusting phone settings, it is not currently possible to silence the National Wireless Emergency Alert system if you use one of the more than 100 carriers that participate.

The mandate was included in the Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act passed by Congress in 2006 as part of post-Hurricane Katrina reforms. Passed by a Republican-controlled House and Senate, and signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush, the alert system nonetheless drew scrutiny, angst and ire from those on the right when reports of its development and launch circulated during the Obama administration. The Drudge Report highlighted one such article about the system, cautioning conservatives that AT&T was “loading iPhones with emergency alerts from Barack Obama … That you can’t switch off.” If you don’t remember Drudge (lucky you), please note the ellipsis was part of the original headline and does not signal an omission by me.

This past week, and in the lead-up to the inaugural national test message, the players switched sides but the memes were largely the same as those left of center prepared to receive an alert labeled as if it had come from the Trump White House.

The person who decided “presidential alert” was the best name for the advisories should be canned.

Because our media viewing habits are changing, government officials at all levels are seeking ways to communicate important, non-political safety information. Getting a phone alert is no more personal than those that have been delivered for years by breaking into television and radio programming. It does not mean the government is tracking your phone.

The big advantage with mobile devices is that the government now can target specific areas under an immediate threat, and reach people in a variety of settings — even those biking on a trail or boating at the lake.

The bottom line is these messages are intended to save our lives ... but only if we run first and Google later.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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