Alerts & Notifications

Wireless Emergency Alert Messages Need to Be Longer, Says DHS Report

A comprehensive study on Wireless Emergency Alerts says 90-character messages are too short and the content needs to be rearranged.

by Rick Wimberly / January 8, 2015

Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) messages need to be longer, the content needs to be rearranged and more education needs to be conducted. These are some of the high-level findings of research for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland.

The study, titled Comprehensive Testing of Imminent Threat Public Messages for Mobile Devices (PDF), showed that a 90-character WEA message is too short to help recipients understand if, indeed, the message is for them and what they should do it about it. Short messages do not by themselves motivate people to take protective action. Instead, people “rely on information provided by others,” said the study report. At the same time, the study showed a marked increase in the number of people who were checking media about a developing event once they received a WEA message.

In addition to making WEA messages longer, START recommends consideration of adding URLs to WEA messages to direct recipients to websites. (When WEA was created, mobile carriers insisted on 90-character messages without URLs out of fear of clogging networks.)  

The study also showed that WEA could be optimized by changing the order of information given. As it stands, the standards that guide WEA require that messages be ordered with: hazard, location, time and guidance of source of information. START says that it found a more effective order for WEA messages to be: source, guidance, hazard, location and time. In other words, it’s important to establish credibility up front by giving a name as the source of the alert. The name must be recognizable, though; some acronyms describing the source don’t work well, according to the results of a focus group conducted as one of the research methods.  

The term “in this area” did not work well with one-fourth of the people surveyed from an actual flood in Colorado; some people assumed the alert did not apply to them. Concerning other commonly used terms in alerts, the START Consortium said it should not be assumed that people know the meanings of “shelter,” “evacuate” and “proceed to higher ground.”

START says it found that adding “high information maps” increased the effectiveness of messages, as opposed to no maps or “low information maps.” “Doing so would help the public interpret and personalize the worded message, which would (based on historical research), in turn, move people at risk to take protective action,” according to the report. However, the report said even high information maps do not stop the public from seeking additional information before taking action.    

START said continued outreach and education could help people read and respond to WEA messages more quickly. The findings also showed that if the term “WEA” is used as the source of alerts, a “vigorous public education campaign would be worthwhile.”

While WEA received much of the attention of the study, START also looked at messages of 140 characters (i.e., text messages) and 1,380 characters (i.e., Emergency Alert System messages). The report also contains other information that could be helpful for alerting by virtually any channel.  

The report on the study conducted for DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate is comprehensive and 193 pages long. It hasn't been published yet by the DHS, but is available on the Galain website. We’ll write a series of blog posts on it, focused on specific elements of the report.