Breaking News
More () »

‘If we can do it for pizzas, we can do it for emergency alerts’: Obstacles hinder improvements to alert system

AMBER Alert-style messages could include pictures, maps and more languages if changes are adopted.

Steve Staeger, Sam Bergum

Play Video

Close Video

Published: 8:00 PM MDT May 17, 2023
Updated: 9:43 PM MDT May 17, 2023

On May 10, the Denver metro area’s most intense severe weather day in five years triggered a tornado threat impacting more than half a million people. It offered a refresher on the necessity – and limitations – of our nation’s most critical emergency alert system.

The National Weather Service in Boulder issued more tornado warnings on that day than it did in all of 2022. With each warning came an AMBER Alert-style message to phones, telling people to take shelter.

Mo Kirk and her husband were at home in Littleton as the storms rolled in. Her husband’s phone blasted the alert. As the couple raced to the basement, they noticed her phone stayed quiet.

"My husband's looking online and just says ‘I think it's not here. It's like further east of us,’" Kirk said. "It is surprising and unacceptable that two phones in the same residence would operate differently during an emergency."

It was surprising to Kirk, but not to emergency managers who regularly struggle with the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system, or WEA. 

Nearly a year and a half’s worth of reporting tells us some people who needed the message that afternoon likely didn’t get it, and many people who weren’t in the path of the storm, like the Kirks, saw their phones go off about a threat that didn’t apply to them. 

Credit: Geoff Sawtell / 9NEWS

“It seems like one of the most important reasons to have a cellular device you can have with you at all times is to know when there's an emergency," Kirk said.

It’s a reality of the decade-old system - one that emergency managers in Colorado have come to expect, and have spent the last year arguing needs to change.

The Federal Communications Commission is now weighing such changes. The FCC cited 9NEWS’ reporting in a proposal for a slate of improvements to WEA. Those proposed improvements include creating the capability to send maps or images with alerts, translating messages in languages other than English and Spanish, allowing emergency managers and alert recipients to turn off the alert noise, improving the location accuracy of the alerts and developing a mechanism so emergency managers know where their message was received. 

They are changes alert and warning experts say could dramatically improve the WEA system’s ability to reach the right people with the best information in life-threatening situations. They’re also things our phones are already doing for just about everything besides emergency communications.

Before You Leave, Check This Out