Where Were you When your Phone Scared you Half to Death?
Test and Monitor | Posted February 09, 2013

I know one person who was in the office men’s room and gave a few people minor heart attacks when his phone started screeching. Personally, I was sitting at my desk talking with some co-workers when multiple phones started blaring all at once. Since none of us even knew our phones could do that, we all started looking for the flashing lights that signal a fire alarm. It was at least a minute or two after silence descended again that one quick-witted colleague figured out that we all had received a weather alert about the impending Snowmageddon coming our way.

So what is that all about?

According to CTIA, these alerts are available for about 97% of wireless subscribers and send location-aware messages according to the guidelines defined by the Wireless Emergency Alert program. Not only is that an amazing bit of technology, it’s also an amazing percentage of people who are able to benefit from it. And not only that, but it’s been available for almost a year.

So, why did so many of us drop our pens and spit out our coffee when we were suddenly assaulted by an unfamiliar screech from an unidentified source nearby? Because we didn’t know anything about this service.

It’s a great service. Seriously. As I'm writing this winter storm Nemo is dropping record amounts of snow on us here in New England – I’m very glad they warned us. But how did none of us known our phones were capable of this?

According to the CTIA’s write-up, “if your device has the CTIA Wireless Emergency Alerts logo, then it is WEA-capable”. This caused me to waste about half an hour exploring my phone for some inkling of this service and the famous logo. Having failed to locate it, I went back online to see what my carrier had to say about it. According to Verizon, I can find this information on the “retail callout card and at the Verizon Wireless equipment descriptions on line”. Well, I must have missed that when I bought the phone.

What I find interesting is that there were never any public tests of this system, at least not directed to us. We’ve all had to sit through the Emergency Broadcasting System tests when all of our TVs suddenly go blank and start bleeping at us, just as the detective is about to solve the crime and end the bet you have with your spouse.

I’ve never actually seen the EBS used for an actual Emergency, oddly enough, weather or otherwise, but I’ve witnessed many tests of the system, so I know it works. Compared to the EBS, the WEA is far more impressive – targeted, unmistakable, pervasive. And better yet, they have isolated their testing effort to select employees (oh, a QA team perhaps?) rather than blasting us all with them. To be honest, maybe I have seen an actual EBS, but I’ve seen so many tests that I usually just leave the room and get a snack when I see it happening.

So, good for you, wireless carriers! You scared me to death this week and I truly appreciate it!

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