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Emergency Alert Systems: A Comparative Approach

In an increasingly mobile world, cell phones provide the best way to disseminate national emergency information. According to a study of U.S. emergency alerts by Georgia Tech, mobile alerts are easier to understand than radio or television alerts. [1] The Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) is a national public warning system. This multi-channel system requires radio, broadcast television, cable, and satellite providers to allow the President to address the American public during a national emergency. [2]

In 2006, concerned with the need to provide alerts over cellular networks, Congress passed the Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act. [3] The Act established a committee of public and private sector officials who were charged with developing standards for implementing Wireless Emergency Alerts. [4]

A recent event involving a false alert highlighted the importance of properly implementing a cellular alert system. In December, amid rising tensions over North Korea’s missile development, Hawaii began testing its public alert systems for the first time since the Cold War era. [5] On January 13, 2018, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency sent smartphones an inbound ballistic missile alert at 8:07 a.m. and another message at 8:43 a.m. stating that the first was a false alarm, causing wide spread panic and confusion. [6]

Three days later, Japan – another state concerned about North Korean missile development – sent out a national mobile alert informing the public that North Korea had launched a missile and citizens should take shelter. [7] [8] Five minutes later, the alert was declared a mistake.

Both of these instances highlight the significant risks of faulty public alert systems. [9]

Though officials later blamed a worker’s misunderstanding of supervisor instructions for the error, they initially attributed the mishap in Hawaii to an errant click of a button on a poorly designed interface involving a drop-down menu listing alerts available for dissemination. [10] [11] While trial-and-error is certain in the development of public alert systems, many argue that widespread panic ensuing from a lack of safeguards and deficient design is unacceptable. [12]

Interestingly, the EU-funded emergency alert project Alert4All has considered this scenario in devising a multilingual alert system able to span multiple countries. [13] By analyzing existing public communication technologies as well as public response trends, the EU has created a system that considers human error a possible threat to emergency alerts. [14] By focusing not only on efficiency, but also on effectiveness and maintaining the public trust, the EU has developed a model system worthy of international attention.

This post is a student blog post and in no way represents the views of the Fordham International Law Journal.