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National SMS System Successful During Superstorm Sandy

Though the Commercial Mobile Alert System fared well during superstorm Sandy, public awareness about the system must still be addressed.

Roughly six months after the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) – a free, national alert system that sends emergency notifications to the public via their mobile phone during emergencies – went live, alert messages were sent out during superstorm Sandy, which swept across the eastern seaboard in late October. Despite damages caused by Sandy, however, some experts said CMAS was ultimately successful during the storm. 

CMAS is the interface to the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) service that wireless phone carriers began rolling out earlier this year, and according to confirmations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Weather Service, messages were sent out to people located in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine when Sandy hit the East Coast.

The WEA alerts, which appear in the form of a 90-character or less SMS message, function as a point-to-multipoint system; like a radio broadcast, the messages are sent to individuals in a target-specific area, whereas text messages aren’t location aware, according to the CTIA - The Wireless Association. What this means is that individuals who may be from the East Coast but were not physically in the storm-affected areas when alerts were being sent would not have received the messages.

During Sandy, the messages signaled for blizzard and flash flood warnings, mandatory evacuations and shelter-in-place messages depending on the location, said Lorin Bristow, the managing partner for Galain Solutions Inc., and blogger for Emergency Management magazine, sister publication to Government Technology.

According to Bristow’s October 31 blog post, different agencies took different approaches to alerting the public given the 90-character constraint. Below are examples of some of the WEA messages sent out during Sandy:

  • “Blizzard Warning this area til 6:00 PM EDT Tue. Prepare. Avoid Travel. Check media. –NWS”
  • “Go indoors immediately and remain inside. DO NOT DRIVE. Call 9-1-1 for emergencies only.”
  • “Flash Flood Warning this area til 3:45 PM EDT. Avoid flood areas. Check local media. –NWS”

“In general, [the notifications] were well received,” Bristow said. “I think there were some questions about, ‘Hey I didn’t get it and somebody else did. Why is that the case?’”

Individuals who may not have received the WEA messages during the storm may not have a proper mobile device to receive such messages. According to the CTIA, there are multiple WEA-compatible devices on the market, however certain cell phone models are not compatible with receiving the messages, or may need a software upgrade to receive them.

And it will take about 18 to 24 more months before the majority of individuals have WEA-capable devices, Bristow said. Although there’s still a long way to go, the change is occurring rapidly since cell phone model turnover happens quickly. And even though the alert system is in its early stages, he said a significant number of individuals received the WEA alerts. 

“The issue is even if they were received, there were still questions about, ‘What is this?' and ‘How do they do that? How do they get this alert?’” Bristow said. “And public awareness is still something that needs to be addressed and people need to understand what they are, where they’re coming from, what their limitations might be and what to do when they get them.”

Sarah Rich is a former staff writer for Government Technology.