Why the government is sending emergency alerts to your smartphone

Months before text-like Amber Alerts propelled criticism from unsuspecting smartphone users in California, New York and elsewhere, U.S. officials in charge of modernizing the nation’s emergency alert system were warned of a possible backlash.

“According to federal, state and local officials we contacted, the public is generally unaware of IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System),” the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, wrote in an April report. “Because of limited public outreach, some state and local alerting authorities expressed concern that the public may ignore or opt out of receiving IPAWS alerts.”

That concern became a reality in recent weeks as cellphone users vented about being startled by their devices erupting in a loud emergency tone.

“I literally thought the city was under attack,” New Yorker Kristin Nehls tweeted after receiving an Amber Alert on July 17. “Scariest wake up ever.”

“That amber alert scared the beejesus outta me!,” Ruby Gutierrez of Los Angles tweeted on Aug. 5. “I had my sound on loud, my heart's still racing.”

Much to Amber Alert advocates’ dismay, instructions on how to turn off the pop-up notifications have flooded the Internet.

“These alerts are protecting the public and saving lives so we would hope that people don’t opt out,” Brian Josef, assistant vice president of regulatory affairs for the Wireless Association, a nonprofit trade organization, told Yahoo News.

Tech upgrades stalled

The effort to start using Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) began nearly 10 years ago but has been besieged by technical challenges and bureaucratic red tape.

After 9/11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began researching ways to create a comprehensive, Internet-based system that would incorporate alerts for TV, radio, websites, automatic phone systems, social media, mobile phones and digital signs among other things. The goal is for IPAWS to also reach non-English speakers and people who are hearing-impaired.

In the wake of the failed federal response to Hurricane Katrina, former President George W. Bush ordered a sweeping technological overhaul of the nation’s warnings for natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

The Public Alert and Warning System law mandated FEMA to modernize the antiquated broadcast-based national emergency alert system (EAS) and implement an integrated approach. Send alerts “to the American people through as many communication pathways as practicable,” Bush wrote in the 2006 order.

After years of setbacks by what a 2009 GAO report called “shifting program goals, lack of continuity in planning, staff turnover, and poorly organized program information from which to make management decisions,” the wireless alert portion of IPAWS is finally being used by the National Weather Service, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and a handful of state and local agencies. For example, emergency managers in New York and Massachusetts sent alerts during Superstorm Sandy and the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.

Most smartphones and some tablets sold in the past two years — roughly 320 million currently active devices — can now receive the location-based alerts, which are transmitted on an exclusive frequency not subject to traffic delays.

All WEA-enabled devices are automatically programmed to receive the warnings for missing children and impending danger (e.g., weather and earthquakes) unless the user adjusts the settings or asks the carrier to turn them off.

Presidential alerts iffy

A special wireless alert for catastrophic events that can’t be turned off is the presidential alert. However, according to the GAO report from April, it doesn’t even work.

“FEMA officials also told us that discussions with the White House are ongoing to determine use of IPAWS during a presidential alert; however, at the time of our report, FEMA officials said a national-level alert would not be disseminated through the federal alert aggregator,” the GAO wrote in its report. “FEMA officials said there are additional challenges to sending a national-level alert directly to EAS participant stations through both IPAWS and the traditional system.”

Multiple emails and calls from Yahoo News to FEMA for this story were not returned.

The traditional EAS, which relies on broadcasters to relay a signal in a distribution chain, has undergone only one nationwide test in its 62-year history. The November 2011 event exposed shortcomings: poor audio quality, transmission errors and even some DirecTV subscribers who said their TVs played Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” during the test.

IPAWS has experienced hiccups, too. Earlier this year, hackers gained access to the IPAWS system at local TV stations in four states and broadcast fake warnings of a zombie apocalypse. “The bodies of the dead are rising from their graves and attacking the living,” the pranksters wrote.

The April GAO report was in response to a congressional inquiry about FEMA’s progress on launching a high-tech disaster warning system.

Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., told Yahoo News that while FEMA has made significant improvements to IPAWS in recent years, “serious questions remain regarding the full functionality of the system.” He said he is considering calling for examining the program at future FEMA-related hearings.

“Educating the American public about the value of the system is important so that any time a disaster or a kidnapping occurs citizens understand what an alert means,” Barletta wrote in an email.

FEMA acknowledged in the GAO report that it would try to do a better job of educating the public on alert changes. So far, the agency has largely relied on its website and the help of nonprofits to spread the word.

“In an ideal world it would be great if the federal government would put a good bit of money into a national outreach campaign, but the reality is they haven’t,” says Rick Wimberly, a private consultant on emergency warning systems. “FEMA’s been doing good work, but there hasn’t been a lot of money spent on outreach.”

Bob Hoever with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children says the goal now is to persuade those who opted out of the wireless alerts to come back.

“I feel bad for anybody that was disturbed, but when they realize that that minor disturbance that they had led to the rescue and saving the life of a child, I’m sure they’ll have a different point of view,” Hoever said.