Wednesday afternoon, more likely than not, you probably heard a strange alert on your phone.
The federal government tested out its text alert system, which will be used in cases of major emergencies across the country. It functions similar to Amber Alerts or Flash Flood warnings that also get sent to your phone.
Alerting via text message might be a first for FEMA but, according to Jeremy Sarachan, a communications professor at St. John Fisher, the need to alert the country immediately started years ago – a product of the Cold War.
Sarachan says, “Before that, they weren’t really around. But once we had the threat of a nuclear war, there was a need to alert people very quickly.”
How the alert was issued changed over time. In the 50s, it was radio. In the 70s, it was via television. FEMA says the systems goal is goal is to provide the President the ability to address the nation during a national emergency. But this leads to people questioning could be abused or overused.
“I think it’s a politicized idea,” Jeremy told us. “What’s going to happen now that we can be reached so easily. We can’t stop it.”
“On the other hand, I think, FEMA has a certain amount of respectability.”
Alert messages on cell phones aren’t just used at the federal level – but locally. Monroe County uses an alert system called Hyper Reach. The 911 center sends out the alert to cell phones in the community or in a particular area where the “threat” is taking place.
“We can use the local phone data base to target addresses for an incident that’s going on in that neighborhood and not broadcasting an entire area,” says Chris Fish, program manager at 911 Center. “We might ask them to shelter in place, not go outside for other health reasons or safety concerns.”
Overall these alerts are about reaching people and keeping people safe with the kind of media they are using. You can sign up for those alerts by clicking here.