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As Northeastern U.S. Prepares for Potential Blizzard, Emergency Alert System Shows Gaps

3 Minute Read

Winter Storm Nemo is headed for the east coast, and the big question on everybody’s mind is: will this be a blizzard for the record books? While some weather service agencies have set their predictions at 3 inches of snowfall, others are expecting ten times that much.

For others, however, another question remains: why did I get a message from the National Weather Service? Or, better yet, why didn’t I?

Yesterday afternoon, many mobile phone users in the region received weather warning alert sent via the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, which was developed by the the FCC and FEMA and implemented early last year.

According to Slate’s Will Oremus, the alerts appear on WEA-equipped mobile phones by default, and “the discrepancy is merely a matter of which phones have been outfitted by their carriers to display the alerts.” Within a few years, as old phones are phased out and new ones enter the market with this feature, more people are likely to receive such alerts.

Until then, however, the confusion caused by yesterday’s alerts demonstrates not only the need for multiple contact modalities during emergencies but also the need for clear communication on the part of companies, organizations, and emergency notification providers before such alerts go out. If your organization depends on an automated notification system to reach out to employees during events such as severe winter storms, make sure they know ahead of time what kind of alerts to expect. That way, when they do receive them, they can focus on the content of the messages and not on the messages themselves.