All the major smart phone manufacturers–Apple, Google, Microsoft–include a feature that was developed in conjunction with the US telephone carriers and the US government to send out emergency alert notifications, including AMBER Alerts and Emergency Alerts. (Android breaks it down even further to Presidential Alerts (war, terrorist attack), Imminent Threat Alerts (natural disasters and weather), and AMBER Alerts.) AMBER Alerts are law enforcement messages aimed at locating a missing and/or endangered child and typically give you a last known location, a car license plate number and make, model, and color.
In theory I support the inclusion of these emergency alert systems, especially as you can’t count on as many people listening to radio or watching TV at a given time of day to hear and see the Emergency Alert System be activated. And all the phone manufacturers give you some control over whether you have some or all of the alerts enabled on your iPhone, Android phone or Windows phone.
Apart from the built-in functions, you can also download other apps that provide emergency notifications. I have a Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) app for state-level notices and a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) app that provides emergency notices as well. All of them limit notifications to phones within a designated locality, inside some radius with the emergency situation at its center.
However, I think someone needs to do some work to determine when and under what circumstances the alert system is activated. Last night, at about 2am, parts of the Northeast US were awakened from sleep by the piercing tones of an AMBER Alert on their phones. A woman was driving from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire with a child in medical distress and they couldn’t locate her. They eventually found her at the emergency room at Children’s Hospital in Boston.
I will grant that this is an important alert, but does waking up millions of smart phone owners with the piercing tones of an alert help find this child? Is this the best use of this feature? Because I guarantee you that many of them turned off the AMBER Alert notice on their phone this morning. (I haven’t, but my wife, Melanie, did.)
If there’s a terrorist attack or act of war, I want to be woken up. If there’s a mega-tsunami bearing down on the East Coast, I want to know. But do I need to awakened for a National Weather Service frost warning? For an AMBER Alert on a car that is presumably on the highway and not in my bedroom where I am asleep?
The manufacturers, the carriers, and the government need to go back to the drawing board. They need to draw up new protocols for when to activate the system and under which circumstances. Because if this keeps happening, like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, they will find no one paying attention to them when it really matters.