Tuesday, September 14, 2021

For Meteorologists: The Misuse of Wireless Emergency Alerts

Last night's The 11th Hour With Brian Williams (when you click on the link, it is the final segment) had a rare segment that included some much-deserved praise for the National Weather Service (transcript below in case the video is taken down). 

Just days earlier, remember, Schumer was with the president as they toward the flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida in the New York City Borough of Queens. The governor of New York and the mayor of New York blamed inaccurate forecasts and warnings for the staggering toll of death and damage. But the truth is the forecasts and the flash flood warnings were astonishingly accurate if you were paying attention.

The National Weather Service is a national treasure. Their meteorologists are the essence of public service. They`re on duty 24 seven, they are busy. In fact, tonight issuing warnings as hurricane Nicholas heads inland bringing awful flooding from Houston all the way east to New Orleans and beyond.

However, the primary focus of the segment is how people have tuned out Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) and may have missed the flash flood emergency warning for New York City on September 1. Williams used the absurd WEA alert sent out during the solemn ceremony in Shanksville Saturday as an example of WEA's misuse. This is a topic about which I have written on several occasions (examples, here and here). Brian Williams went on to report,

The problem is not the National Weather Service. In fact, the problem just might be us. Warnings are so often ignored. They are supposed to sound on your phone. Unless of course the last Amber Alert tone interrupted your last Zoom call and you turned off your notifications. That means you could miss the next tornado or flash flood warning. Over use of warning systems is the modern day definition of crying wolf...   [emphasis mine]

GEOFF BENNETT, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The President and the First Lady are going to lay a reef. We`re getting some sort of emergency alert here in Shanksville. We`ll find out what that`s all about.


WILLIAMS:  It fell to Steve Portnoy of CBS News to speak for all of us. Two of these alerts with their abrasive halting and haunting tones came screaming over the cell phones of Flight 93 families as they gathered at the memorial wall. This misuse of the weather emergency alert system sent shutters through the crowd and event we also note that hosted to American presidents under heavy security.

So the problem isn`t our technology or our ability. It`s how we use it. The information is there but incidents like this screw up don`t bode well for the effort to get folks to pay attention.

Wireless Emergency Alerts used to be activated solely for life-threatening situations (tsunami, tornado, etc.). Now that 2.5" hail* has been added to WEA -- which I view as an unfortunate development -- there are already calls to lower the wind threshold to 70 mph and 1.5 inch hail. This is a slippery slope. The NBC report demonstrates that people resent WEA false alarms and that people will deactivate WEA due to warnings that are not meaningful to them. 

NOAA Weather Radio became irrelevant because of too many non-meaningful activations (1" hail warning at 3am). We need to be very careful the same mistakes are not made with WEA.

*I mistyped earlier. 80 mph winds are life-threatening. I was referring to the 70 mph proposal. 

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