Public Safety

Wireless Alerts Could Save Your Life

The first California Amber Alert broadcast to cell phones last week generated wide public attention and media coverage, and it may have contributed to the safe recovery of 16-year-old San Diego County kidnapping victim Hannah Anderson over the weekend.

Still, the Amber Alert itself confused, annoyed and even frightened some recipients. Concerned that problems with last week’s alert will prompt smartphone users to “opt out” from receiving Wireless Emergency Alerts, San Diego County Office of Emergency Services Director Holly Crawford joined state lawmakers for a news conference in Sacramento Monday urging the public to keep the alerts enabled.

 “I want to encourage everyone listening or watching: Do not opt out of this system; it could save your life,” Crawford said.

Newer cell phones are capable of receiving Wireless Emergency Alerts, which are broadcast from cell towers to phones.  Currently, the system is designated to carry Amber Alerts and emergency alerts, for example, a notice that people should evacuate due to fire or take shelter because of a toxic chemical release.

 “My biggest worry is that people will opt out of everything, and when I need to send a particular emergency message to people so they can protect themselves, I’m not going to be able to reach them,” said Crawford.

The system is incredibly valuable in getting the word out to people if they need to take action.
-Holly Crawford,
County Emergency Services Director

Crawford pointed out that the Wireless Emergency Alerts—or WEA— system, which the County helped pilot in 2010, has several features that make it a powerful tool in an emergency.

“The reason this system is so special is people don’t have to take any particular action to opt-in,” Crawford said. “We’re able to reach tourists who are visiting San Diego. The system is incredibly valuable in getting the word out to people if they need to take action.”

This year, local government agencies were authorized to send wireless alerts; the County’s Office of Emergency Services will soon add the ability to issue them in a serious emergency or disaster in which people need to act quickly. Last week’s alert was initiated by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Crawford said Wireless Emergency Alerts can target cell phones in a specific area, so, for example, if a nearby earthquake caused a tsunami wave, emergency managers could quickly get an alert to people on the coast telling them to move to higher ground.

The WEA system is overseen by FEMA, the Federal Communications Commission, and the major wireless carriers. Crawford has said she will work with FEMA and the FCC to try to bring about improvements to the system such as expanding the number of characters in a message—it’s currently limited to 90—and setting clear parameters for its appropriate use for Amber Alerts. 

Monday’s news conference was led by State Assembly Speaker John Perez. He said the Assembly would convene a special hearing in the fall to study ways the WEA system could be improved.

He said initial public frustrations included receiving multiple messages, late night messages, messages that disappeared, and messages lacking information.

“We want to work at making it a more and more nimble system,” Perez said.

For example, Perez said, the system would ideally allow people to set Amber Alerts and emergency alerts differently, turning off Amber Alert sounds when they know they will be sleeping, but leaving the alerts enabled in case of late night emergencies.

“We know the technology exists to make refinements,” Perez said.

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