Bumps in rollout of cellphone alerts in state

TACOMA — A system set up to send emergency alerts to thousands of cellphone users warning them of natural disasters and missing children has experienced problems during its rollout in Washington state, the News Tribune reported Sunday.

The mobile notification system has helped authorities find at least two missing children as a result of Amber Alerts sent to cellphones in the state.

But it also mistakenly warned people in the lowlands of Western Washington of a blizzard that was happening in the Cascade Range, and it alerted others in Western Washington of potential flash floods thousands of miles away, in Puerto Rico.

Still, officials said, the weather warnings have saved countless people elsewhere in the country. The system is working, they said, despite the problems.

“To some people these things are annoying. But when you look at it as the big picture of saving lives, as a community as a whole, it’s the right thing to do,” said Ted Buehner, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Seattle. “These are targeted for immediate, life-threatening, hazardous events.”

In Connecticut last July, for example, a camp director got 29 children to safety after getting a tornado warning on her cellphone moments before the storm touched down where she and the campers had been. Tornado warnings in the Midwest also were responsible for saving many lives, Buehner said.

Congress approved the national Wireless Emergency Alert system in 2006 to provide instant warnings from emergency agencies throughout the country. To get the word out, the system uses cellphone carriers to complement other alerts sent out on television and radio.

But in a few cases, the system has confused both cellphone users and the emergency agencies in charge of implementing it, according to the News Tribune.

Three of the eight messages sent in Washington state were sent too broadly, reaching people in the wrong areas. Two others went out before dawn, raising questions about what people were expected to do in the middle of the night once they received those alerts.

Carri Gordon, the Amber Alert coordinator for the Washington State Patrol, said the rollout of the system was especially complicated.

“There’s a lot of players in this and a lot of pieces that all have to work together,” Gordon told the News Tribune. “There really is no one agency that’s in charge of the whole process.”

Worried that cellphone users may opt out en masse of getting the alerts, state and federal agencies have made changes. They are also working to educate the public about the alerts.

The committee that oversees the national system decided last year to eliminate blizzards and ice storms from its list of emergency alerts, Buehner said. The list now covers tornados, hurricanes, extreme wind, typhoons, dust storms and flash flooding. The committee also added tsunamis in February.

After an Amber Alert went out to hundreds of people at 3:30 a.m. on April 28, alerting them to a missing child, some who received the message wondered what they were supposed to do about it so early in the morning.

The Washington State Patrol, which oversees the state’s Amber Alerts, later said the message wasn’t meant to wake up residents. Agency officials said they learned that they were responsible for setting time parameters on the alerts to prevent them going out late at night.

The agency set those time parameters in June. Now, the alert system is programmed not to send alerts after 10 p.m. or before 6 a.m.

Still, the alert served a purpose. The missing 1-year-old boy was found safe in Fife that morning as a result of the cellphone broadcast, Gordon said.

“These are useful, and they’ve proven very successful in locating these kids who have been abducted,” she told the News Tribune.

In December 2012, the National Weather Service in Seattle sent a blizzard alert to people living near the Cascades, but the technology of the national system forwarded it to all the counties in the region. Some people living in Pierce County where the storm never reached were puzzled to get the message.

But Herb Munson told the newspaper he hoped the confusion doesn’t dissuade the agency from issuing such alerts.

“I would like to get such messages when there is a threat to nearby areas,” Munson told the newspaper.

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