As a recent spate of storms highlighted, emergency alerts are effective—but often overly broad. Improving mobile and broadcast tech, backed by associations, could help narrow the focus.
One of the biggest problems with the traditional emergency alert system—the one that appears on television—is that it’s not specific enough.
And it’s been coming to a head in recent weeks, amid an outbreak of tornadoes throughout the country—some of which struck as far east as New Jersey.
The problem? Often, tornadoes hit a narrow area, but local stations still have to preempt their coverage as a result. As USA Today noted, this leads to complaints: Recent deadly storms in Ohio affected an episode of The Bachelorette, while heavy storms in Georgia in April led Atlanta’s CBS station to preempt the final round of the Masters during an impressive run by Tiger Woods.
While meteorologists have criticized those who publicly complain about these kinds of issues, the situation nonetheless creates a delicate balance for the National Weather Service and local stations. Too many false alarms can lead to a loss of trust that can prove difficult to get past.
But while there’s only so much television stations can do to improve geotargeting at the moment, there are potential options that could change this situation.
Improved Phone Targeting
Since 2012, the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system has become an increasingly prevalent way of reaching the public with relevant emergency information at a moment’s notice.
Such warnings were used during the recent spate of tornadoes, on top of the more traditional television coverage, and have been employed for other incidents over the years, including Amber Alerts, inclement weather, and warnings of a terrorism risk.
CTIA, the association for the wireless industry, has long been a supporter of the approach.
“In 90 characters or less, WEAs state who is sending the alert, what is happening, who is affected, and what action to take,” CTIA states on its website. “While WEAs can provide critical information to wireless subscribers, you can opt out of WEA Imminent Threat and Amber Alerts.”
One place where they can be of benefit? On the highway. A recent CNN piece cites an example of a truck driver who was notified of a tornado warning in his specific area from his mobile device—and got off the road just in time.
While these tools can be helpful, they’re not perfect: A couple of weeks ago, police in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, received a number of complaints about Amber Alerts that were sent in the middle of the night.
And some have called for upgrades over the years, such as the ability to use multimedia in the messages. (In 2016, CTIA said such additions could put stress on mobile providers’ systems; no word on if that would change after the rollout of 5G systems.) Nonetheless, the WEA program is considered a success.
Next-Gen TV Tech
Of course, while phones are great, odds are still high that the screen where folks might see the notification first is on a TV.
While TVs are good for delivering detailed information, they can’t geotarget. Fortunately, broadcasters have been working on that problem.
ATSC 3.0, the new television broadcasting standard approved in 2017 by the Federal Communications Commission, is said to allow for a reimagining of what can be done with emergency alerts.
The technology, widely backed by industry groups such as the National Association of Broadcasters, supports a new type of alert called Advanced Emergency Alerting.
As detailed on the Advanced Television Systems Committee website, AEA would be capable of increased geotargeting of emergency alert messages, along with increased messaging that the current Emergency Alert System doesn’t account for like school closures and traffic emergencies.
“An ATSC 3.0 AEA message can be less intrusive to the viewer, because it does not interrupt programming, and allows the viewer to choose what information they want to see,” the committee says on its website. “Furthermore, ATSC 3.0 AEA messages can support much narrower geotargeting of emergency information, supplemented with graphics, video, and a station’s livestream of coverage of an event.”
The downside with ATSC 3.0 is that it could take many years for the technology to trickle down on a mass scale—it’s still in the testing stage, with many broadcasters committing to a 2020 rollout.
But if the technology lives up to its potential, it could make emergency warnings more relevant—and more specific—for the public.