With one click of a computer mouse at the National Weather Service station in Pleasant Hill, your cellphone will screech in the night to warn of the potential for flash flooding miles from your neighborhood.
And you can’t even remember downloading that app.
You didn’t. It’s a little-known feature built into newer mobile phones because of a 2006 act of Congress.
A federal weather alert system has been causing smartphones to squawk, tremble and display abbreviated texts for about three years. But Kansas City area residents have mostly been spared the interruptions until recent months, when juicy conditions have stirred tornadic activity and raised the threat of flooding.
“We’ll hear complaints. People who get annoyed say they didn’t sign up,” said Gene Shepherd of Kansas City’s Office of Emergency Management. “They think they’re being charged when they’re not.
“Or they’ll say, ‘Only warn me if a tornado is going to hit my block,’ which is impossible to do.”
Still, the Wireless Emergency Alerts network, or WEA, is a more advanced and comprehensive system than policymakers could have imagined a decade ago.
It targets text alerts — mostly weather warnings — to cell towers in the areas threatened. So if you’re traveling, the warnings apply to the place where you happen to be rather than where you live, which is how private weather apps work.
Tornado survivors across the country increasingly credit smartphone alerts for saving their lives.
But officials are concerned that too many warnings and a lack of public knowledge about how WEA functions may compel countless Americans to turn off the notifications.
“You don’t want to get people burned out on it because they can opt out” by adjusting their phones’ settings, Shepherd said. “We definitely don’t advise that.”
Flash flood warnings, the most common of the weather alerts, also are the most problematic. Even the people who do the alerting acknowledge that.
“I live on a hill,” said Andy Bailey, warning coordination meteorologist at Pleasant Hill. “And when my phone goes off at 3 a.m., I’m not real excited myself.”
Because swollen rivers and tributaries can cover a lot of territory, flood alerts typically go out to a wider area than do tornado alerts. With the latter, forecasters today can often narrow alerts to phone users in a twister’s path.
Some low-lying areas around Kansas City face a common risk of flooding, but everyone within a cell tower’s reach will get the alarm. And “the system doesn’t know if you’re in a 10th-floor apartment,” said Mike Gerber, who leads the weather service’s wireless alert programs nationwide.
The Pleasant Hill station limits its wireless alerts to tornado and flash flood warnings. Yet they’ve been adding up.
Since the start of the year, 30 tornado warnings and 72 flash flood warnings have been issued across the station’s 44-county forecast region in Missouri and Kansas. The alerts often cause smartphones to blare simultaneously in a given place.
Area flood warnings already exceed all of those issued in 2013 and 2014 combined.
Still, a typical smartphone in the region has blared only about three times so far this year, weather service data suggest. (That figure does not include wireless Amber Alerts, which are issued by law enforcement via the WEA system.)
Just one alert, startling as it can be, might drive someone to block the feature, officials concede. The loud tone mimicks the emergency test signals on radio and television, except without the calming “this is only a test” lead-in.
In Kansas City, Kan., a budget meeting of the Unified Government erupted in emergency-signal clatter on July 6, when the city came under a tornado warning.
“When I hear a whole room go off … it makes me smile,” said Matt May, emergency manager for Wyandotte County. “Very slowly, people, I think, are beginning to understand what the system does.”
He recently served on a national advisory panel to recommend to the Federal Communications Commission how the alert system could be improved. Some measures already have been taken to avoid what May called “overwarning.”
For one, officials have scrapped issuing wireless alerts for winter storms, which forecasters usually can see moving in from afar.
“They realized that to wake you at 4 in the morning about a snowstorm two days out was unnecessary,” May said. “It was doing damage because people were disabling the WEA capability on their phones.”
He said that could be a fatal decision: “It can be annoying to hear flood alerts go off in the Kansas City area. I understand. But if you disable that feature and you’re vacationing in Big Thompson Canyon in Colorado? You’d have minutes to react to a flash flood.”
The evidence is building that phones can be the first and only source of warning before devastation strikes.
Connecticut authorities credit a text alert to the iPhone of a soccer complex manager for his hustling to safety 29 children who weren’t carrying their cellphones.
In late 2013, two dozen phones growled at once during a Sunday church service in Washington, Ill., allowing 600 worshippers to file into the basement before a twister ravaged the town.
The federal law that created the alert system even gave the U.S. president a means of sending phone texts in a national emergency.
No such message has ever been issued. But if one is, you’re sure to receive it. The president’s alerts can’t be blocked on WEA-capable devices, though weather warnings and Amber Alerts can be.
Meteorologists and emergency management officials said the system will constantly need tweaking as technology races ahead.
The extent of that tweaking largely rests with wireless service providers, which have already spent billions of dollars in making WEA a reality. Major carriers did so voluntarily. Some smaller service providers don’t offer the service because it’s not mandatory.
More investment would be needed for providers to expand the text alerts beyond the 90 characters that many consumers complain are too few to relay sufficient information.
Yet when the law was enacted, the government couldn’t think of squeezing 90 characters into an iPhone, as none had yet been sold.
“Another reason everyone this year seems to be getting these alerts is that now so, so many more phones are capable,” said Gerber of the weather service.
But in how many of those smartphones has the service been blocked?
“Nobody knows,” he said. “That would be a nice number to know.”