First California AMBER alert shows AT&T's Emergency Alerts System to be a mess [UPDATED]

AT&T's implementation of the FCC's Emergency Alerts System provides minimally useful information in an untimely fashion with little geolocational relevance.

[See UPDATE below]

Back in June AT&T announced that it would be updating subscribers' iPhones to support an FCC-mandated wireless Emergency Alerts System. This service is intended to provide three classes of alerts:

  • Extreme weather, and other threatening emergencies in your area
  • AMBER Alerts
  • Presidential Alerts during a national emergency

AT&T noted in a blog post

... you are not charged for the data to deliver it and Wireless Emergency Alerts will never count against your messaging plan. The update will be sent to users with iOS 6.1 or higher.

You can disable Emergency and AMBER Alerts but not presidential alerts.

All-in-all, it's a very good idea ... but what about in practice? Yesterday California got its first AMBER alert  and my notification arrived at 10:54pm. It came up as panel over my lock screen and here's what it looked like on my notifications screen:

The problem with this it that's all there is! You can stab away at the message as much as you like but that's all you get, there's no link to any detail and considering the event it related to occurred over 240 miles away from me near to the Mexican border, the WEA service seems to be poorly implemented. Indeed, many Californians were annoyed and confused by the alert and according to the LA Times "Some cellphones received only a text message, others buzzed and beeped. Some people got more than one alert." I got a second copy of the alert at 2:22am and other subscribers reported not receiving any alert until late this morning.

I asked AT&T why clicking on the truncated message did nothing and what should have happened when the alert was received and got the following response from Emily J. Edmonds, Director, AT&T Corporate Communications:

When you receive a WEA (Wireless Emergency Alert) on your iPhone it will appear on the home screen with a corresponding (very loud!) alarm. Once you swipe your phone, it goes away, but then appears in the notification center as you displayed below. You can’t click on the alert to display additional information because WEA’s were designed to minimize network impact.

For additional information, here is a link to a blog post we issued in June when we brought WEA’s to the iPhone 5 and 4S. It provides information on how to opt-out of receiving alerts if needed:

So WEAs are "designed to minimize network impact" ... in other words, they are a least effort service that provides minimally useful information in an untimely fashion with little geolocational relevance.

Make no mistake, public emergency notifications are an incredibly important service and when events such as the one that triggered the alert occur (a murder and kidnapping), it is our social duty to pay attention and help if we can but if this is the best that can be achieved, it's just not going to work.

[UPDATE 08/07/13]

AT&T's Director, Corporate Communications representative, Emily J. Edmonds, got back in touch with me this morning to clarify some points that weren't addressed when I contacted the company yesterday prior to posting this article.

Ms. Edmonds pointed out that Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) content is solely the responsibility of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (who I applauded last week for a new app they just released) and that AT&T has no control over said content. Thus my complaint about the AMBER Alert message having no links to supporting information is not AT&T's problem. 

Point taken, AT&T. FEMA obviously haven't thought through what information an alert should contain and have ignored the obvious opportunity to offer more useful, in-depth information. Just telling us the details of a car and referencing a town that most of us have never heard of without telling us who to call if we see the vehicle is ridiculous.

Ms. Edmonds was also at pains to point out that the way the alert is presented is an implementation issue for which the smartphone vendors are responsible thus the various reported complaints about screeches and squarks that accompanied the alerts are also not AT&T's responsibility.

Ms. Edmonds provided an official statement: 

AT&T offers 15 devices that are capable to receive Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) and we continue to expand our network to accommodate WEA's. We receive these emergency alerts from FEMA, who get them from various agencies and then we distribute them across our network accordingly. Devices in an impacted area that are WEA capable, powered on and enabled by the user of that device will receive these alerts.

AT&T apparently didn't appreciate my headline and argued that they just did what they were required to do by law. Ms. Edmonds' point about the content of alerts not being their responsibility is well taken though the issue of the inconsistent delivery quality still remains: I received my first alert at 10:54pm on 8/5 and a second identical alert 2:22am on 8/6. I've seen reports of people getting six alerts and others getting their first alert long after I got my second one. People got the alert in San Francisco while other people in California never got the alert at all.

In a telephone call this morning Ms. Edmonds also revisited the issue of the alert messages being intentionally unlinked so as "minimize network impact" which I still think is a crock. According to the San Francisco chronicle:

The organizations behind the Wireless Emergency Alert, however, say they were thrilled by the reaction to the first statewide alarm. Since the alert went out, they said Tuesday, more than 100,000 people have searched for the San Diego County case on Google and authorities have been flooded with calls.

Really? That's how you minimize network impact? And let's be clear, the epicenter of the alert was Boulevard, a town east of San Diego near the Mexican border and just about 100 miles from the Arizona border and the WEA messages was sent out throughout much of California but not at all to Arizona. Am I missing something here?

So, given all of the foregoing I will revise my headline accordingly: First California AMBER alert shows FEMA's Emergency Alerts System to be a mess as my experience with AT&T illustrated

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