Those of you in California would have woken up to that crazy sounding AMBER Alert (abbreviation for “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response”) on Monday Aug 5th at 10:52PM. The alarm was worse than a fire alarm in a big industrial building.
That AMBER Alert (officially known nation-wide as IPAWS — Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or even more generally as WEA — Wireless Emergency Alert system) was to notify the millions of users in CA about the abduction of a teen Hannah Anderson in San Diego, CA. More information about that case can be found here.
I was at home trying to wind down for the day when I heard that alert. It certainly was “alarming” to say the least… I thought that the alert was for an early warning for a Tsunami, an Earth quake, or a Nuclear attack, until I actually read that cryptic message.
Without having any expectations about the seriousness of the AMBER Alerts, and without any knowledge that these Amber Alerts have been activated by default in my smartphone, my imagination went wild for a little while. I even thought of getting outside the house assuming that the alert was for an earthquake. I then went online and figured out what was going on. As expected, I noticed mixed reactions to this alert. A series of questions came to my mind:
Anyways, this Alert got me thinking about the pros and cons of the service, and also about how it can be improved. For starters, I am all in favor of the Amber Alert technology. It has helped recover many under age kids from perpetrators. My thoughts are more about making it a better service for people.
- Alert technology:
The AMBER Alert technology has to improve A LOT! If some local authority decides that “we don’t know where the suspect is heading, so lets alert all the users in bottom 48 states”, then this service will fail miserably. There are many ways to target the alerts based on a specific geographic location, for ex:
- just alert the coastal cities in pacific north west for a potential tsunami
- just alert the users in the flight path dynamically every few mins, if there is an air threat (similar to 9-11)
and so on… The current technology allows these capabilities — we just have to be smart about using them.
- Alert levels:
Coming from the technology world, these sort of alerts are very common. Systems and servers go down frequently, and automatic/manual alerts are issued to corresponding engineering teams on a regular basis. But, there is a method to the madness. Alerts are heavily categorized based on the severity level, and response times for these alerts are agreed upon in advance. For ex:
- A Severity zero (Sev 0) alert means hell broke loose, and all-hands are needed on the table in less than 30mins (hacker attack, site went down, etc).
- In contrast, a Severity four (Sev 4) alert is mostly a warning that needs to be attended in 1 to 3 business days (hard disk might get full in few days, etc)
Just like the Tech world, and just like the infamous “Homeland Security National Terrorism Alert levels”, there should be some categorization of these alerts based on severity, the # of users to target based on the severity, and the expected response from the general public. For ex:
- A Sev-0 Alert might be similar to a “Presidential Alert” that can be issued any time of the day, and could require immediate attention.
- A Sev-1 Alert could be issued for big natural disasters such as Tsunami, Earth quake, Nuclear Attack, etc, and might require the general public to act fast.
- A Sev-2 Alert might be similar to AMBER Alert which can only be issued between 8AM and 10PM every day, and does not expect general public to drop everything and attend to this alert. Also, this alert will not be accompanied with any loud, shrieking alarm.
And so on…
Having various alert levels, and setting expectations on both the gov authorities, and the general public will avoid a LOT of these confusions.
- Education about these Alerts
The last but more important way to improve this service is by educating the general public. No state-wide alert has been issued over cell phones in CA before Aug 5th, and most people (including me) did not know that our cellphones are enabled with these alerts by default (opt-out nature of these alerts).
It is the responsibility of both the gov agencies, and the mobile/tv/satellite/radio network providers to educate the users about:
- the various wireless alert services
- the features and limitations of these alerts
- expectations about the response for these alerts from general public
Without the above mentioned changes, these alerts are in danger of losing their viability. The CA state government is already facing a humongous task of getting all those hundreds of thousands of users who opted-out that day after receiving that crazy shrieking AMBER alert.
In summary, I believe that, a focused effort to address the above-mentioned areas will definitely make these these wireless alert systems from being just a “better-than-nothing” service to “a very important, and timely service that potentially saves the lives of the citizens”.
I welcome your comments.
- Wireless Emergency Alerts on Your Mobile Devices
- Wireless Amber Alert program
- LA Times article advocating the benefits of AMBER Alert
- Slate Magazine’s article about getting rid of AMBER Alert
- University of Nevada study about the drawbacks of AMBER Alert, and how it can be improved
- SF Chronicle article about Aug 5th AMBER alert
- Discussions in public internet forums about Aug 5th AMBER Alert