Alaska's cellphone emergency alert system malfunctioned during the last earthquake, and experts still don't know why

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Aug. 11—State and federal officials say they still don't know why many Anchorage and Mat-Su residents received cellphone emergency alerts during a tsunami warning in late July.

Anchorage is at almost no risk of a tsunami, even during a large earthquake, and the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer did not send an alert to cellphones in Alaska's largest city. Many residents received warning messages anyway. Many others did not.

According to records and statements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state of Alaska and the National Weather Service — which operates the tsunami warning center — warnings should have been sent only to cellphones on the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak, Alaska Peninsula and in portions of the Aleutian Islands.

How the messages reached beyond that area remains a mystery.

"This is not the last time this is going to happen, probably, and this has happened before," said Audrey Gray, emergency programs manager for the Municipality of Anchorage.

The cellphone alert system tested Wednesday nationwide, but it did not address the apparent problems with targeting alerts in Alaska.

Repeated erroneous warnings

Over the past several years, Anchorage residents have repeatedly received alerts intended for people in other parts of the state. Bryan Fisher, director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said changes were made to fix problems that were previously discovered. Last month's alert appears to have exposed a new issue.

July's message was not a false alarm, said Jasmine Blackwell, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service: There was a tsunami warning, and that warning reached the people it needed to reach.

"In the end, I'd rather over-warn parts of the state, as opposed to under-warning communities that need to take action," Fisher said.

The risks of under-warning are obvious: People may remain in the path of a disaster that could injure or kill them.

But over-warning creates risks, too. Evacuation warnings can create confusion, and if they go to the wrong people, they can send them into the path of danger rather than out of it. Erroneous messages can distract emergency officials and — if repeated — can cause recipients to ignore a real emergency.

During the July 28 tsunami warning, agencies didn't broadly report that the Anchorage warning was a mistake until later.

The National Weather Service office in Anchorage posted a short message on Twitter, as did the Anchorage mayor's office, but there was no notice from state officials or the tsunami warning center.

"We were focused on communicating to the communities in the warning and advisory area and making sure they had received the warning," said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

"The WEA system is a public-private partnership and it occasionally takes time to determine if, and or how a message is unintentionally transmitted," Zidek said. "On the evening the tsunami warning was issued, we did not have the data to issue some type of correction. In addition, we leave the issuing of tsunami alerts to the tsunami warning center as they have all of the detection equipment and great scientific minds to interpret the data."

At the National Weather Service, Blackwell said, "since we did not send out a false alarm, we would not send out a corrective — something to correct it — because we didn't issue a false alarm."

After the November 2018 earthquake in Southcentral Alaska, officials said the inability to precisely target alerts prevented them from sending out a cellphone alert "due to concerns that people who were not affected by the earthquake would receive the alert," according to a Government Accountability Office analysis.

Different agencies use different warning maps

Warning messages reach cellphones through a "fairly convoluted" process, Fisher said.

"The (Tsunami) Warning Center sends out their message. It goes via email and text to some people. It goes through NOAA's Advanced Weather Information Processing System, AWIPS, and that system feeds it to FEMA. And when it gets to FEMA, the FEMA IPAWS system, based on whatever the parameters are, sends it both to the Emergency Alert System (and) sends it to the Wireless Emergency Alert System," he said.

Radio and TV stations spread the emergency alert system message, while cellphone companies take the wireless alert and send it to phones in an area defined by FEMA.

On the night of July 28, at least one Southcentral Alaska radio station broadcast an alert by radio that listed Anchorage and Mat-Su as being covered by a tsunami warning. That wasn't accurate, and state officials are working with broadcasters to find out how that erroneous information was added. But under the state's plan for spreading tsunami warnings, that mistake shouldn't have affected cellphone alerts.

When it comes to cellphone alerts, FEMA is moving toward a system that allows officials to draw a shape on a map, alerting everyone within the relevant area. That equipment isn't yet in place in Alaska. Instead, officials choose from pre-defined regions whose boundaries are defined by Census Bureau data.

For forecasts and its own warnings, the Weather Service uses a different map with smaller regions.

In prior emergencies, Anchorage residents have received alerts because of those different standards. Fisher said he recalls an instance when the Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for Turnagain Pass, but that activated the Emergency Alert System across all of Anchorage because FEMA couldn't send a more targeted message.

State and federal officials were aware of that issue when a magnitude 8.2 earthquake struck off the Alaska Peninsula on the evening of July 28, triggering a tsunami warning.

Blackwell, the Weather Service spokeswoman, said that when the tsunami warning was issued, it included "zone 125," which covers the eastern Kenai Peninsula and Girdwood.

Girdwood is in the Municipality of Anchorage, and that might have triggered cellphone alerts, but FEMA's technical data shows Anchorage was not included in the cellphone warning area.

"Based on the emails, the stuff that went up on, the email notifications we got, it was clear — at least in the text — that they were they were containing that warning to a specific location," Fisher said.

Officials are now turning their attention to cellphone providers. AT&T customers and GCI customers both reported receiving the alert, which makes it less likely that an individual cellphone company is at fault.

Heather Handyside, a spokeswoman for GCI, said telephone companies just pass alerts through and "don't make any determination about who should or shouldn't get it."

There is some wiggle room. If a cellphone in South Anchorage or Girdwood is connected to a cellular tower in the Kenai Peninsula, it could get an alert targeted for the Kenai.

Handyside, Fisher and others said it's important to keep in mind that the cellphone alert system is constantly being upgraded and changed, even if only to keep up with new models of cellphones.

"It's a little bit like remodeling a sailboat while it's underway," said Zidek, the spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

"Every time we have a actual tsunami warning, we learn something about the system and we make it better. Every time we have a test of the system, we learn something about the system and we make it better," he said.

Here's how to check whether your phone is set up to receive emergency alerts

About 10:20 a.m. Wednesday, FEMA conducted a nationwide test of the cellphone emergency alert system. Some cellphones don't have those alerts activated by default.

The Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has created a video to show how to turn them on. The Federal Communications Commission has step-by-step instructions with pictures.

On an iPhone, open settings, press "notifications" and scroll all the way to the bottom to "government alerts." Turn on the switches for "emergency alerts" and "public safety alerts" if they aren't already activated.

To activate test alerts, open the phone keypad, then dial *5005*25371# and press the call button. An alert will pop up saying "test alerts enabled." Press "dismiss" to close the alert window. You'll still receive the test message.

On Android, go to Settings > connections > more connection settings > wireless alerts. Press the symbol with three dots arranged vertically, then select settings and turn on the switches for the different kinds of alerts.

For some Samsung phones, open the "Messages" app, tap the three dots in the upper-right corner to open the menu, select "settings," scroll down to "emergency alert settings," then use the switches to select the alerts you want to receive.

Your phone may have special instructions. Consult the manufacturer's guide.

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