Not Everyone Enjoys Receiving Flash Flood Notifications

The system that sends loud messages to your cell phone isn't mandatory.

Tuesday night, many in the Boston area had the by now familiar—yet still always unsettling—experience of hearing every cell phone in a room of people explode with the unique ring and vibration of a Wireless Emergency Alert. As you might imagine, not everyone was grateful for the warning.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for Eastern Massachusetts after thunderstorms dumped several inches of rain in the western suburbs, then headed east. For many, this news came via a system that allows the NWS to send out emergency weather alerts to all equipped cell phones in the area. The system uses cell phone towers in the vicinity of a weather event to broadcast an emergency notification to everyone within range. It’s not unlike the way a radio station sends out airwaves to any radio tuned to receive its signals, but in this case, your phone is always tuned to the right station. The message looks sort of like a text, but it isn’t. It has a different ring and vibration, and it doesn’t cost anything to receive it. It is used to notify the public of extreme weather, but also enabled to notify us of AMBER alerts, local emergencies, and Presidential Alerts sent during national emergencies.

The system is about a year old in Massachusetts, but it is still jarring to a lot of people, particularly when it comes in the late evening. One look at Twitter reveals more than one irked user shaken from their sleep by news of a flash flood (which for many, didn’t much affect their plans.)

These people might be pleasantly surprised to learn that most mobile service providers acknowledge how annoying these messages can be and give instructions on how to opt out of receiving them. They vary by provider and phone type, so use the WEA website and do some research to figure out how to get it done on your phone. Some even allow you to receive only “extreme” alerts and opt out of “severe” alerts. (Extreme alerts include warnings for tsunamis, tornadoes, extreme winds, hurricanes and typhoons, all of which also go by the name of “things you really want to know are happening before they hit you.”) Presidential alerts are an exception. Sorry, there’s no way out of those.

But, then, do you really want one? Recall the lines of people waiting to charge their iPhone in Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy, and it’ll remind you that cell phones are one of our last sources of connectivity in times of mass power outage and emergency. Just as an older generation once gathered around the radio to listen to presidential messages in the wake of disasters, our generation should take comfort that we have a high-tech way to connect to our emergency services that doesn’t require our power lines to be up and running (at least until our battery runs out.) These alerts are annoying, particularly when we don’t feel very threatened by the flash flood that woke us up from our pre-Wednesday slumber, but the alerts do give us a modern-day way to stay connected in dark times. And that is something to consider when staring down the opt-out switch.