By now, you’ve likely heard about the disturbing Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) sent across Hawaii in error January 13. There’s been plenty of hand-wringing and finger pointing as officials up and down the line work to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. While many agree the root cause was human error, there are other problems with this system designed to issue mass-notifications during emergency situations.

The program began in 2012 as a way to allow authorized government messages to be sent via mobile carriers. WEA alerts fall into the following categories:

  • Presidential Alerts during a national emergency
  • AMBER/SILVER Alerts for missing children and elders
  • Weather warnings for tornado, flash flood warnings and tsunamis

In the case of the first two, these messages can have a wide impact because they are delivered to a large group of people. Even though the messages currently lack great detail, recipients know “something” is going on that requires them to seek more information.

However, when it comes to weather alerts, there are serious problems because cell carriers handle these messages in different ways. While it may seem beneficial to know about a storm threat like a tornado via a cell phone alert, the devil is in the details.

First, it’s important to understand that something very important happened over ten years ago that few even realize. The National Weather Service changed the way it identifies and communicates severe weather threats. Prior to 2007, warnings for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, and flash floods were issued for a county or group of counties. Since 2007, the NWS leveraged new technology that followed a storm’s specific threat. Now, storm-based warnings use geometric shapes, called polygons to more precisely define the threat:

This allows warnings to be more accurate and IN THEORY, only alarm those people located within the warning. Keep in mind these polygons can and often do include multiple counties. Many other warning systems, like weather radios, many free phone apps, and even the crawls seen on TV are unable to properly pass along the warnings to those only within the polygon. Over time, this leads to over-warning and confusion as repeatedly warning those not at risk leads to complacency and inaction in the face of a real threat.

Knowing exactly who to warn would seem to be perfected with the advance of cell phones, whose GPS location can be reliably communicated. Unfortunately, it’s currently not a perfect system since federal government agencies (FEMA, FCC, National Weather Service) involved with the WEA program have failed to require participating cell carriers to adopt a consistent procedure regarding when they broadcast severe weather warnings.  To be more specific;

  • AT&T and Verizon: A tower must be located INSIDE a warning polygon to activate
  • Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, and others: If a tower’s FOOTPRINT is intersected by a warning polygon, they broadcast the alert.

That’s where the confusion comes in; if a phone is located inside a polygon, then the weather threat message should appear. However, WEA currently does NOT match up a smartphone’s specific location with a warning polygon.  They broadcast out the alert 360 degrees around each tower which is where the serious flaws in the system come into play.

Here is an example of how AT&T and Verizon handle warnings.  The red triangle represents a tower which is inside a warning polygon.  Half the phones of this particular cell tower are correctly warned.  Phones on the outside of the polygon are warned for no reason:

Here is what happens if an AT&T or Verizon tower is just OUTSIDE of the polygon. NO phones inside the danger area receive the warning!

The other carriers (Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.) use a different set of rules regarding when to activate a tower.  If the tower’s FOOTPRINT is intersected by the polygon, it broadcasts the warning 360 degrees, which also creates confusion and unnecessary warning:

This problem is amplified outside urban areas where cell towers are spaced further apart.  This means manufactured housing communities, typically located in suburban or rural areas, will be impacted inequitably by this problem more frequently.

The government plans to correct this confusion by upgrading the WEA alert system to geo- target smart phones so ONLY the ones inside a warning polygon will receive the alert. This fix is still almost 2 years in the future, assuming the development and implementation occurs on schedule.

What it all comes down to is trust. Almost 75% of Americans now use a smart phone. While the case of the errant missile alert is rare, severe weather warnings are much more common. If recipients can’t trust that they are reliably being told they are in danger, they won’t take actual threats seriously and develop a “cry wolf” mentality. Worse yet, they will rely on their own ability to visually confirm danger which may not give them adequate reaction time.

At the root cause of the inaccuracy when it comes to weather alerts is a lack of standards. While the NWS has a protocol for issuing the warnings, there is no common expectation among delivery systems developed by the private sector to ensure public trust. Additionally, WEA alerts are currently hampered by a 90-character limitation which leaves little room for the inclusion of imagery, links, safety instructions, etc.

In the wake of the Hawaii error, there are calls to improve the WEA system which hopefully will be addressed in time. Meanwhile, consumers of weather information may struggle to know for sure whether that rumble of thunder will be followed by sudden disaster or just lead to a damp lawn.

WeatherCall’s continuous monitoring system addresses these flaws in the government warning system, delivering extremely precise weather warnings that a manufacturer, hospital or senior care community can trust to add real safety value.  To learn more, go to www.weathercallenterprise.com.