Saturday, February 16, 2013

Uncle Sam Calling

The media was doing its level best to hype the end of the world. Or put in a more mundane way, it was forecasting the weather. The truth, of course, lay somewhere between those two. The storm that was rolling up the Eastern seaboard and colliding with another from the Midwest was indeed a potent snow maker, and deserved more than just a passing mention. But in spite of what the Weather Channel would have you believe, we would all live to see another day before a new Ice Age was upon us.

Still, while it would be foolish to ignore the impending meteorological event, it was easy to tune out the warnings and watches. So many times before similar "heads-up's" have amounted to little more than a nuisance. Not that this time it wouldn't be a big deal, but cry wolf often enough, and it's hardly surprising that we don't pay attention even if we're about to be eaten.

But then I, and lots of you, got the call. More specifically, my phone rang and vibrated, though the cadence was different than usual. When I grabbed it, there was no one there. What I did see was a bright red triangle with an exclamation point in it, kind of like a traffic sign telling me to watch out ahead. I didn't even have to hit a button to display the message: the symbol came full screen, along with a warning: "Severe Alert. Blizzard Warning in this area til 1:00PM EST Sat. Prepare. Avoid Travel. Check Media. - NWS." Uncle Sam was calling, albeit sounding a bit like Yoda.

For many of us, this was our first experience with the latest incarnation of the old Emergency Broadcast System. You remember the EBS: a flat announcement on the radio or TV that "This is a test, it is only a test," followed by an annoying tone for 20 seconds or so, followed once again by the same flat voice: "Had this been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed where to turn for more information. This is a test, this is only a test." Go about your lives. Don't stop moving. Nothing to see here, move along, move along.

However, depending on TV or radio these days to get the word out in an emergency is a dicey proposition at best. With online and game consoles and movies on your phone, three quarters of the populace pays no attention to those traditional media outlets, and certainly not in real time. If you want to reach the masses quickly and where they are, there is probably no better avenue than their smart phones. After all, we take them with us to the store, to bed, even into stalls in rest rooms (where we proceed to chatter and dismiss the background noise, no matter how embarrassing it gets to be).

In that light, the WEA system, for Wireless Emergency Alerts, makes eminent sense. Activated in June of last year, it's a government program run by the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, working with the cell phone industry.  Alerts can be extreme weather warnings, like this one, as well as local emergencies, AMBER alerts for missing children and Presidential level alerts for national emergencies. Not to worry: if you can't be bothered for anything other than an inbound nuclear warhead, you can opt out of all but the last.  

These are not text messages in the traditional sense. For one, they are limited to 90 characters, hence the abbreviated form of "Prepare. Avoid Travel. Check Media." (Note to Middle East Twitter users: it took you 140 characters to foment regime change; see what you can do with less?). And the alerts are sent out from cell towers to all phones in the area, regardless of their home base. So if you're visiting Southern California from New Jersey, and it's about to fall into the sea, you won't be left standing there wondering what all the fuss is about.

What we have here is the perfect example of a public-private partnership: you got your government agencies with important info, you got your wireless carriers with access, you got your public with the need to know. Everybody's happy. Now, if only they would text me if the Dow is going south with my portfolio. Is that too much to ask?


Marc Wollin of Bedford has grown to like texting. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. 

No comments: