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Why Wireless Emergency Alerts Need Longer Messages

A DHS study says 90-character WEA messages create a "milling" effect and are insufficient to convince people to take protective action.

by Rick Wimberly / April 27, 2015
WEA messages are currently limited to 90 characters and may not contain URLs to point to websites for people to get more information. Shutterstock

Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) messages need to be longer, URLs should be included, message order must be changed and more outreach is needed, according to a new study conducted for the U.S. DHS.

The Comprehensive Testing of Imminent Threat Public Messages for Mobile Devices study used focus groups, interviews, post-incident surveys and experiments to thoroughly examine WEA messages. With $980,000 provided by the Commerce Department to DHS’ Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate, the study was conducted by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. The study’s principal investigator, Brooke Fisher Liu, said the empirical-based guidance “can potentially help alert originators improve how they currently craft and disseminate WEAs.” 

Denis Gusty, a program manager with DHS S&T, said he was not surprised by any of the research findings, but hopes stakeholders will read the report and make adjustments where appropriate by putting the information into practice. Suggested changes relative to message length and content are already under consideration by key stakeholders charged with making WEA recommendations to the FCC through the Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council.

WEA messages are currently limited to 90 characters and may not contain URLs to point to websites for people to get more information. START’s study found that 90 characters is insufficient to convince people to take protective action. The messages may get the public’s attention, but the study says a 90-character message creates a “milling” effect in which people seek other sources to confirm information before taking protective action. The START survey conducted after a flood emergency in Colorado showed that almost 50 percent of people checked the media within 15 minutes of receiving a WEA message. Before receiving the message, just 30 percent had been watching the flood event unfold via the media.

The industry group that represents wireless carriers said it is not opposed to increasing the message length. However, Brian Josef, assistant vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA—The Wireless Association, said it would be a significant effort to increase the character limit. Technology would need to be modified on the carriers’ networks as well as the federal gateway for WEA operated by FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. Standards would also need to be changed. 

Josef said there’s also a legacy issue: Older cellphones may not support a 280-character limit. Local and state emergency management and public safety officials may need to understand that they would need to craft WEA messages for both older and newer phones, he added.

The START study also recommended that URLs be included in WEA messages. The wireless industry is open to discussing this change but more study is needed, said Josef. The main concern relates to the threat of overloading networks in an emergency when large numbers of people in an area go to a specific website. 

“Obviously, in terms of user friendliness, the notion of clicking on a link is something people are familiar and comfortable with,” Josef said. “There’s a balance of wanting to provide additional information without congesting the networks and frustrating people’s ability to pull additional information.”

The wireless industry supports making the changes, knowing that when the service was first introduced several years ago that it would need to evolve. “If making the alerts longer and contain more information would make them more useful, it’s something we could support based on technical capabilities,” Josef said. However, he added that the issues need to be carefully addressed before making changes.

The study also determined that placing a recognizable source at the beginning of the message would increase its effectiveness. Current standards require that the type of hazard and location be the first elements of the message. START says it found source, guidance and then hazard to be most effective. 

Gusty said it was interesting to find that the ordering of the message content, as simple as that might sound, makes a big difference with how a message is interpreted. The order of WEA message content is one of the report’s many recommendations that can be put into practice immediately, said Liu of START.

One other primary conclusion from the research suggested that more outreach and public education would help improve WEA’s effect. “Continued outreach and education about the WEA service may help to speed the rate at which members of the general public read and respond to WEA messages,” according to the report.

The source of the WEA messages was found to be important as well. Although more study is needed on message source, the report said, “Quantitative and qualitative findings also suggest that local and recognizable sources might be the most productive sole source to name in a WEA message.”



This story was originally published by Emergency Management

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